He started running Sunday in north Florida and didn’t stop until his feet had reached history.
Along the way, Austin Ekeler did something never achieved by Emmitt Smith, O.J. Simpson or Barry Sanders.
LaDainian Tomlinson never did what Ekeler did, either, and he’s the standard by which all Chargers running backs are judged.
Ekeler topped 100 yards in both rushing and receiving against Jacksonville in a 45-10 victory that featured Chargers highlights bursting all over the place.
He became just the second player in franchise history to reach those totals in a single game, joining Lionel James, who did so against Cincinnati in 1985.
“You don’t think about that during the game,” Ekeler said. “You’re just playing. It ended up being a good day for me. I was getting some lanes and making plays here and there and it kept adding up.”
He finished with 101 rushing yards and 112 receiving yards, amassing 213 total on only 12 touches — eight carries and four catches. That’s an average of nearly 18 yards each time Ekeler handled the ball.
The Chargers had seven plays that gained at least 20 yards and Ekeler produced four of them. He had an 84-yard reception and runs of 35, 27 and 23 yards.
“For a guy coming in undrafted, it must mean the world to him and his family,” fellow running back Melvin Gordon said. “He doesn’t always get a lot of notoriety. But he’s getting it now.”
Ekeler’s 84-yard catch was historic for another reason. It was the longest pass in the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, who now has 4,822 NFL completions.
Rivers finished Sunday 16 of 22 for 314 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His rating of 154.4 also was a career-best, coming in his 236th game, including the postseason.
The 84-yard pass began innocently — and shortly — enough. On the third play of the second half, Rivers was about to be hit and dropped by Jaguars defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue when the quarterback fired a screen pass to Ekeler.
Taking the ball on the right side of the formation, Ekeler sprinted through Jacksonville’s defense untouched.
In fact, for much of his romp, the closest player to him was Scott Quessenberry, the Chargers’ center, who also was sprinting downfield, equally untouched.
Ekeler called the play his favorite of the day, even as he shortchanged himself. He thought it was an 82-yarder.
“My longest touchdown,” Ekeler said. “I was just looking up at the Jumbotron, running as fast as I could.”
Told that he was on the receiving end of Rivers’ longest completion, Ekeler suddenly sounded genuinely impressed.
“Longest ever?” he said. “Wow. That’s a crazy stat. Ever? Nice. I’ll be in the history books with Phil.”
In his third season, Ekeler joined the Chargers as an undrafted rookie in 2017 out of Western State, which is now called Western Colorado. He didn’t cement his spot on the roster until the final preseason game that year and then established himself mostly on special teams.
Ekeler emerged on offense as an effective complement to Gordon in 2018. When Gordon missed the first four games this season because of a contract dispute, Ekeler further increased his role on offense.
And now this — a performance to be talked about for years to come.
“He’s got to be pound-for-pound the toughest, strongest guy in the league,” tight end Virgil Green said. “It shows by the way he plays.”
Said tight end Hunter Henry: “That kid deserves it. … It’s really awesome just to see his success. That kid is a beast. … He’s a stud.”
Ekeler led the way on a day when the Chargers could finally exhale and delight on pummeling a team struggling even more than they have this season.
The 4-9 Jaguars have lost five in a row, will likely have a new coach next season and were booed heartily Sunday in a gray and half-empty TIAA Bank Field.
The Chargers took full advantage. They had scored as many as four touchdowns in a game just once this season, and they needed overtime in their opener to do that.
Against Jacksonville, six Chargers — Ekeler, Gordon, Henry, Green, Derek Watt and Mike Williams — reached the end zone as the visitors topped 30 points for the first time since Week 13 last year.
“It just feels good that we won a game,” Ekeler said. “I’ve been tired of just coming up short and short and short. It was obviously icing on the cake that I racked up a bunch of yards.”
The victory stopped a three-game losing streak for the 5-8 Chargers but couldn’t prevent them from being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. Their fate was sealed when Pittsburgh and Tennessee also won.
They did, however, get back to winning and doing so like they haven’t in a while — with a fourth quarter that included genuine garbage time. Ten of the Chargers’ 12 games entering Sunday had been decided by one score and eight were losses.
“People were laughing on the sidelines, having fun,” Gordon said. “People were actually enjoying the game, as we should. It was a sight to see today.”
It was a sight, all right, an historic one.