Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is most dangerous, and comfortable, in open space

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler makes a catch against the Packers.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has rushed for 340 yards in 90 carries with three touchdowns. He’s also caught 57 passes for 559 yards and six more scores.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

This is shifty, elusive Austin Ekeler at his best.

The Chargers’ undersized and undrafted, but hardly unloved, running back is most comfortable — and dangerous — in this element.

This is Austin Ekeler in space.

“I just miss Colorado and the open space, you know?” he said to a roomful of reporters this week. “Where we are in California, it’s just roads and parking lots and buildings.

“It’s good to see the mountains always, just the open land and the natural trees. In California, it’s a little different. If you’ve got trees, it’s a park. It’s designated. Out here, it’s how it’s been forever.”


The Chargers are practicing in Colorado Springs to become accustomed to high altitude before they play the Chiefs in Mexico City.

Nov. 12, 2019

Some of the Chargers aren’t thrilled about spending a week in the altitude in preparation for playing Monday in Mexico City, at roughly 7,300-foot high Aztec Stadium.

Ekeler, however, is back home, his local popularity such that he and Joey Bosa were the two players the team made available to the media following the Chargers’ first workout.

He attended high school 125 miles away, in the tiny town of Eaton, which has a Facebook page and an alpaca farm. Ekeler played collegiately at Western State — now called Western Colorado — about a 3 1/2-hour drive by car.

He planned to spend much of the Chargers’ off day Wednesday with family members who live close by, including his grandparents who typically don’t travel to his games.

“It’ll always bring back some memories, especially when I’m in the mountains again,” Ekeler said. “It’s special. I have a lot of memories in Colorado, a lot of family.”

Despite the return of Melvin Gordon six games ago, Ekeler still leads the Chargers with 340 yards rushing. He is second in receptions with 57, five behind Keenan Allen.


Ekeler tops NFL running backs in catches and receiving yards (559), and his nine touchdowns are best on the team.

All this production from a 5-foot-10, 200-pound back who made the Chargers as a rookie in 2017 because of his performance in the final preseason game, and then established himself on special teams.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler celebrates a touchdown with an air guitar move.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler celebrates a touchdown with an air guitar move as Tennessee Titans linebacker Jayon Brown walks off the field.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

So far in 2019, Ekeler has been on the field for just three special teams plays. The rest of his 388 total snaps have come on offense.

“I’m just continuing to build my role,” Ekeler, 24, said. “It’s just been a big snowball that keeps building and building. I’m always focused on what’s now.”

During his session with reporters, he was asked multiple questions about being an inspiration for other Colorado kids from similar small towns. Ekeler was urged to share any advice he might have for those who look up to a running back who stands no taller than the Chargers’ kicker.


He explained that the questions he was hearing are the same ones regularly directed at him on social media or relayed through family members.

“I think it’s cool for people to see someone they knew from a small town go and accomplish things that maybe seem extraordinary,” Ekeler said. “For me, it just seems like I’ve been going down a path. That’s why I can relate to people.

“I’m just doing what I’ve always done. It’s the same focus. It’s pretty special. I never take it for granted, just knowing I came from a small town and kept building and building.”

He is famous for commemorating his scores by grinding on an imaginary guitar, a practice that originated from his love of the 1980s song “Money For Nothing,” which was released a decade before Ekeler was born.

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Nov. 13, 2019

In revisiting the story, he acknowledged that he can’t play an actual guitar, and wasn’t entirely certain of the name of the band — Dire Straits — that made the song popular. But he knew in college that if he reached the NFL and was fortunate enough to score a touchdown, jamming on an air guitar would be his signature celebration.

So, even while toiling at a Division II school, Ekeler was thinking about maybe one day playing in the NFL, a possibility that didn’t seem genuine until his senior season.


“I never really focused on the next level until it became the actual next step,” he said. “It wasn’t until the end of my junior year and coach said, ‘Hey, you got a real shot.’ ”

That coach was Jas Bains, who also coached at Chadron State when former Chargers running back Danny Woodhead — another undersized small-school overachiever — was there.

Ekeler said Bains told him that if Woodhead could play in the NFL, he could too. They were that similar. Ekeler certainly had the work ethic, his weight-room sessions long and legendary.

And he had the desire. On the same day he graduated from Eaton High, Ekeler drove to Western State and was working out with the football team by nightfall.

“I didn’t waste any time,” he said. “I just wanted it so bad. That was my passion at the time. I was just focused on the moment.”

Ekeler’s still focused on the moment, back home now and sharing his story with others so much like him.