He started the day in tears.
Literal tears. As Chargers running back Austin Ekeler sprinted through the tunnel for Game No. 1 of Season No. 3, he couldn't hold them back.
Then the game began, and he devastated the Colts one cannon blast at a time.
Hurdling a defender on his second touch.
Snaking out of the backfield to catch the team's first touchdown of the season. Spike and air guitar included.
Embarrassing professionals. Ekeler caught one screen pass, turned upfield, veered toward the sideline and revved through the flailing arms of the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, the "Maniac" Darius Leonard. And rammed through corner Pierre Desir. And rendered Malik Hooker a statue, stunned and helpless, 55 yards to the house for another touchdown. Ekeler spiked the ball (again), air-guitared (again), and when he decompressed on the bench in front of a rotating fan moments later—one teammate flexing guns in his face—the man Ekeler is currently costing millions of dollars even chimed in. There was Melvin Gordon III, saluting the man draining any leverage he has left:
Ekeler supplied two more blasts in overtime, too.
Knifing back inside, in the face of two Colts, for 19 yards. Then, four snaps later, booting Indy back to the Midwest with a third touchdown. Against nine defenders in the box, he coolly slid behind fullback Derek Watt's seal to paydirt, giving the Chargers a 30-24 win.
He couldn't strum the guitar this time. He was mobbed.
And as Ekeler headed back through that tunnel, he saw his family and...cried. Again.
Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" blared. Fans—real, live Los Angeles Chargers fans!—screamed and high-fived as they headed to the exits. And at that precise moment, everything that's been so murky in L.A. became so exquisitely clear. The Chargers, apparently, do not need Gordon. The star known as "Flash," whose 2014 season at Wisconsin ranks No. 2 on the Division I all-time rushing list, right behind Barry Sanders' 1988. The workhorse who went 15th overall and is one of only four NFL players with 3,500 yards from scrimmage and 35 touchdowns since 2016.
The household name with the rare motivation who's holding out for a new contract.
The Chargers are still Super Bowl contenders with this 24-year-old from an unincorporated town (Briggsdale, Colorado, population: 809) and a college nobody's ever heard of (Western Colorado). They can win with a running back who, from afar, looks like a kid on the sideline. Like, at any moment, he'll surely be tapped on the shoulder by some security official, who will take his hand and usher him back to his parents in the stands.
Yet up close, here in the locker room after this 154-yard performance, the greatest day of his football life, Ekeler is no bantamweight. He's a 200-pound block of granite.
Sporting a bright floral shirt, Ekeler cannot stop sweating. Beads pool all over his bald head and drip into his eyes. A team official hands him a towel, and Ekeler explains that, no, he's never actually played guitar. He just loves the idea of being a "rock star," on center stage, entertaining a crowd. Back in his college living room, he used to blare rock from the '70s and '80s and told his roommate that if he ever made it to an NFL end zone, this would be his signature.
One, two, three violent strums.
"I'm breaking the strings!" he says, air-guitaring again. "I'm jamming. Bwowww!"
New superstars emerge in the NFL every fall. But this? This is different, because nobody has taken Ekeler seriously as a football player his entire life.
Forget Division I schools. D-II schools didn't even believe in him. Forget being motivated by one or two slights on draft day. Twenty-seven running backs were drafted. He never heard his name called. He's been forever treated like a player bound to fail. Hooker, just standing there on that 55-yarder, represented countless others.
Ekeler is surprising pretty much everyone—everyone but himself.
Because to Ekeler, this is all one continuous build. If Gordon returns, great. Ekeler's not even thinking about that, instead obsessed with "building, building, building" to this point. To those tears.
"Even in college, I was always on the verge of tears, because I was building," Ekeler says. "Everything I have done before had led to this moment."
Who knows when Gordon returns? NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported it'll be between Weeks 6 and 8. With Ekeler, it may not matter. Because with Ekeler, the Chargers would be wise to let this build proceed uninterrupted.
Long before he became the lifeblood of an NFL offense, Ekeler was on a ranch.
In the middle of nowhere.
And absolutely miserable.
This is where you need to start, in Briggsdale, where Ekeler's life was painfully simple. All summer, since he can remember, he'd wake up at 6 a.m. to work for this then-stepdad's fencing company. There were no attaboys, let alone allowances. No, Ekeler installed fence...after fence...after fence...until dark, because that's what he was told to do. And he knew that if he ever screwed anything up, he'd pay the price. Ekeler says his ex-stepdad—whom he never references by name here—had an abusive father himself growing up and, in turn, "brought that upon me."
So he's not shy about any of it. That he hated the work. The constant of pounding posts into the ground. And stringing wire. And clipping fence. And the fact that there was never an end in sight on these massive projects.
And that he hated his stepdad.
"I hated him. I hated him. I hated every minute about that," Ekeler says. "But literally, looking back, that's what taught me about working hard. It sucks. It sucked when I was going through all that stuff, but it literally taught me how to work hard. Because there was no complaining. It was: Get it done as fast as you could. If he ever asked you to do anything, you'd run. You'd literally run and go do it. Get it done.
"Because if you didn't, you didn't like the result. I just hated this guy."
His biological father and mother split shortly after he was born. His dad is in prison for life and, no, as he sits in Chargers headquarters in his Space Jam shirt, with a 1½-inch scar on his right arm and a dime-sized scar on his left—routine battle wounds, nothing serious—Ekeler doesn't want to get into all of that. His mother met this stepdad after they moved into town from Colorado Springs and stayed with him for 11 years.
At no point did Ekeler ever think this work was doing him any good. "I'm just thinking, 'This is terrible,'" he says, closing his eyes at the memory of his body aching every night. The toughest part might've been tamping posts. That is, Ekeler would plant fence posts deep into the ground, one quarter-mile at a time, first with a metal bar and later with the help of tractor. And each quarter-mile, he then needed to install a massive H-brace.
For 20 miles. For 25 miles. For 30 miles.
However long a barbed-wire fence needed to be to, for example, keep a landowner's cows off the railroad.
Ekeler was joined by his stepdad, stepdad's son, stepdad's son's friend and his mom and brother, Wyett, though Wyett was too young to help back then. Seven years younger, he'd chill on the tractor nearby. While they did play some music, nothing ever gave them any joy through this all. The joy came in the occasional fishing trips. His face lights up thinking back to "slaying bass" at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska with his mother's side of the family. He'd catch catfish everywhere, too.
Soon enough, however, winter arrived.
And his stepdad's voice would wake him up in the middle of the night.
Pointing at different spots on the table here, Ekeler lays out the land in explaining how he tended to his stepdad's farm animals year-round. How he'd need to carefully disconnect and drain four different hoses, downhill, after each usage and what would happen if he failed, if the hoses froze up or cracked. His stepdad went berserk. He'd drag a groggy Ekeler out of bed and into the snow in the middle of the night to make him thaw those hoses out via campfire or a wood-burning stove...then string 'em back out...then bring 'em back to the troughs.
Ekeler never considered quitting, at any point. That was not an option.
Yet he did have an escape: sports. And he quickly realized that all this work made him a different breed as a running back at nearby Eaton High. He was farm-strong. He never tired. He never complained. As a senior, Ekeler ran for 2,398 yards with 42 total touchdowns.
Not that anybody outside of Eaton seemed to notice or care.
He ponders why.
Maybe it was geography. It's easy to overlook a school in Colorado with only 90 kids per graduating class, and his own head coach wasn't much help. He liked Bill Mondt a lot. Mondt actually coached the New Mexico Lobos back in the '70s, but, 76 years old by this point, he wasn't exactly fighting for Ekeler. Instead, he'd pass off any letters he received to Ekeler, who tried (and failed) to sell himself. No Division I schools showed a blip of interest, and all the Division II schools in arm's reach— CSU-Pueblo, Adams State University, etc.—wanted Ekeler to play defensive back.
Or maybe the film was too grainy. It certainly wasn't HD—but you could still see his number, see a No. 30 racing away from the pack. He even had connections. His offensive coordinator's twin brother coached at North Carolina. So Ekeler went to UNC's camp, and he killed it...and he never heard a peep. His own damn cousin, Mike Ekeler, was a linebackers coach at Nebraska. He can still hear Mike telling him he needed to run a 10.8 in the 100-meter dash to have any shot at Nebraska. ("I'm like, 'I run an 11.01. OK...all right.'")
Ekeler even remembers finding a list online that showed he had the 22nd-most rushing yards in the entire nation.
"And I didn't get any interest from anybody?" he says. "I was so confused."
Even now, he's dumbfounded.
His thick, dark eyebrows flare. His voice gets louder.
"Sure, I went to a small school, but I am DE-STROY-ING people!" he says. "What else could you have done? What else? I had 42 touchdowns! It was absurd! I would score four, five a game! I don't know what else I could have done."
It's clear what everyone missed: that kid on the ranch.
"To me, you couldn't evaluate my heart, my work ethic. You couldn't evaluate all that," he says. "You can't put that in numbers. ... You can't measure someone's demeanor and how they work."
One program did offer the chance to play running back: D-II Western Colorado. The head coach there, Jas Bains, told Ekeler his senior running back was graduating so they had a spot.
And that's all Ekeler needed to hear.
As his high school graduation neared, Ekeler lined everything up in Gunnison—a place to stay, a roommate, a summer job as a rafting guide to pay rent. He packed his bags the night before receiving his diploma.
"And I said, 'See ya!'"
Ekeler wouldn't need to install a fence ever again.
The apathy pained him. Like lingering sciatica. Ekeler was one of nine running backs initially at Western Colorado, a nobody, but even he couldn't stand the fact that seniors weren't taking the game a fraction as seriously as he was. He quickly earned the starting job, and each blowout loss stung more than the last—48-21, then 29-3, then 35-13.
Finally, he snapped.
During a team dinner, Ekeler saw teammates goofing around and fiddling with their phones. So when Bains asked if anybody had anything to say, Ekeler spoke up.
His voice trembled then and trembles now just reliving that moment.
"I was on the verge of tears because I was so nervous," Ekeler says. "I was just so passionate in telling the team what I had to say."
Ekeler told everyone that their attitudes were unacceptable. That nobody was locked in, nobody seemed to care—at all—about this team. This was foreign to him. Ekeler was used to his high school team winning nearly every game. From that point forward, Ekeler was a team captain. Western Colorado won two games, then four, then four again, then went 7-4 in Ekeler's final season. His passion did, in fact, catch on.
The Mountaineers finished just a game out of first in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Which, obviously, sounds about as memorable as a ribbon at the fair.
Laughable, even, compared to Gordon's tour de force through the Big Ten. But that's the point. That's where you see how Ekeler is different than any back in the NFL. He played in front of 100 fans on Saturdays, not 100,000. He was never on national TV. Never surrounded by 5-star recruits forever destined for greatness. And he relished this. He loved building something, organically, all in the name of pride and pride only.
When Ekeler first saw those seniors with a foot out the door, part of him understood why. It's hard to lift yourself out of bed for 6 a.m. workouts when no one—literally, no one—is considering football as a career. It wasn't a dream, let alone a reality. But, to Ekeler, this sure beat the ranch. He told everyone who'd listen, "We can do something. We can put a ring on your finger." He embraced the challenge of getting others to care like he cared, of pulling "as many people as I could along."
Gunnison is a town of 6,000, give or take. Hardly Madison, Wisconsin. But Ekeler was in his element.
"I love that you had to be the one who made it work," Ekeler says. "It wasn't because we had this huge program and all these nutritionists. You yourself had to get the motivation in your head to say, 'I'm going to get this done.' It was just like working at the fence. There's no one besides you and everyone around you. You have to get it done. Whatever it takes. You have to motivate yourself.
"We don't have these extravagant weight rooms and all these hype things. We don't have a big crowd we're going to play for—Oh, we've gotta play for them. We didn't even have each other when I got there. Everyone was all over the place.
"I don't know why I put it upon myself. Probably because I cared. This was not how I wanted it to be here for my time here. I'm going to speak about that."
A team of "individuals" became, truly, a team.
And this is where he also met his first love: the weight room. Ekeler quickly realized, in there, what a childhood of manual labor had done for him.
The first "max day" at school, he squatted more than everyone. Linemen. Linebackers. Nobody came close then. And now, in the pros, he's still outlifting virtually everyone. Whenever Ekeler enters a weight room, it's a spectacle—teammates gather to see Ekeler squat five 45-pound plates on each side of a barbell.
He and two other players at Western Colorado—Travis Haney and Ty Henry—made a habit of lifting extra, of ticking off their strength coach for doing too much. They'd walk into the weight room, ask, "What's not sore?" and then destroy that muscle.
This is what Ekeler does for fun.
The result has been beautiful deception. Pads on, it's difficult for anyone to tell a 5'9" running back packs so much punch. Here, sitting in a chair, Ekeler sways back and forth, staring ahead at a pretend defense.
From Western Colorado to the NFL, his raw strength became a (secret) superpower.
"People try to shoulder-tackle me. They think they can just blast me on the ground. But I have balance. My legs can stick," says Ekeler, slamming his left foot into the ground. "My foot just sticks in the ground. So you hit me and, Bam! I bounce! You might move me, but it's not going to slam me into the ground, like people think."
In 40 collegiate games, Ekeler finished with 5,857 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns. This time, people noticed. Scouts from nearly every NFL team passed through Gunnison, including one former D-II player. Packers scout Sam Seale played at Western Colorado before a decade in the NFL and, Ekeler says, was his running backs coach's best friend.
He figured he'd play for Green Bay or the Chargers, because Chargers scout Tom McConnaughey showed a genuine interest, too.
The Packers drafted three backs that year: Jamaal Williams (134th overall), Aaron Jones (182nd) and Devante Mays (238th).
Ekeler went undrafted. Ekeler chose the Chargers.
The first time Ekeler stepped into the huddle in OTAs—as one of 90 players trying to make the team—he felt his stomach tighten. Everything felt tight.
He started to dry heave, asked for a sub to take his place, sprinted to the sideline and Ekeler...
"Because," he says, "I cared."
So much so that he had the audacity to walk right into his head coach's office—nerves running wild, words tripping over each other—to ask Anthony Lynn what he needed to do to make the team.
He was a nobody then, a running back wearing No. 3.
His odds of making the team, as one of five backs in camp, were slim.
Lynn told Ekeler to 1) protect Philip Rivers, 2) protect the ball and 3) go visit "Coach Stew," the special teams coordinator. Ekeler listened. He promptly chatted with George Stewart for 40 minutes, about life, about everything outside of football in a conversation he cherishes to this day. And then, after turning heads practice...after practice...after practice...Lynn brought his name up to the entire team.
He praised Ekeler. He told everyone about that day Ekeler had the guts to approach him.
And then Lynn made a confession: He didn't even know Ekeler's name at the time.
Three years later? Ekeler is the starter. Everything has changed very fast, very furiously, but Ekeler says he hasn't thought much about the situation that set off all that change: Gordon's contract holdout. The two aren't that close, for one. Ekeler says they share more of a "business relationship," adding that they have "different lifestyles." And why would he think about it, anyway? Why let it poison his mind at this point? He treats every day, at every level, with the same tenacity.
That lip would quiver just as much now as it did in that team meeting at Western Colorado.
No, the gravity of his role now will never hit him.
"My role has changed, and it might change back," Ekeler says. "Mel might come back and get his starting job back. Whatever happens, I'm a football player. That's how I see myself. People are like: 'Oh, you're out of special teams now. Do you think you'll go back?' It's like, 'I want to go back!'
"Whatever I can morph myself into, for this team ... that's what I'm going to do. I made this team on special teams, so I have a secret love on special teams."
He's pressed on this. He's reminded that the Chargers have Super Bowl aspirations and that he is the starting running back. That changes things.
"What does it change?!" he snaps.
The pressure. "From who? Not myself. I've already had pressure on myself."
Now, you're getting the ball about 20 times a game. The team needs you more than ever. "Let's go. Let's go."
This isn't Briggsdale or Gunnison. Everything around him has changed. The audience to his air-guitar sessions has grown from one to millions. Which is nice. But fantasy football trolls are finding him, too. After fumbling against Jacksonville, as a rookie, he says people on Instagram told him to die. He now has his agent delete negative comments on there so his family doesn't have to read such "B.S." One message, however, did find its way to Ekeler's eyes on the eve of this season. A fan sent Ekeler a DM asking if he could realistically handle the load as a running back at his size.
The person added that he himself was 5'8," 190 pounds, and that if he got hit, he'd break.
Ekeler couldn't resist. "No offense," he wrote back, "but you're not me.'"
Because Ekeler knows what he's made of. Last season, on an onside kick return, he was speared in the face and knocked airborne by the Bengals' Clayton Fejedelem. He laid motionless for several moments. Unable to feel anything on the left side of his body. He had suffered a concussion and major nerve damage—the "scariest" injury of his life because, on the spot, Ekeler lost his superpowers. This bodybuilder who could bicep curl 65 pounds wasn't even able to lift a 20-pounder with his left arm. Structurally, his muscles and bones were fine, but the connection between his brain and left arm was damaged.
"I'm literally in the doctor's like: 'Hey, am I going to be able to use my arm? Or is this dying right now?'"
Gradually, the nerves started firing again, and he played three weeks later. With a cowboy collar on, he still wasn't himself. He felt top-heavy. He couldn't move his neck and thus couldn't see where he was going. Two weeks after that, he received exactly zero carries in L.A.'s 41-28 divisional playoff loss to New England.
Now he's back. "I don't have a freakin' bionic neck anymore!" He can stick that leg and buckle tacklers into crumpled heaps. "And they say, 'Oh! Cot dang!'" One week, he's squatting 405 pounds six times. The next, he's shredding the Colts.
It's a tad eerie for an outsider visiting the Chargers locker room. Gordon's stall is still full of clothing and cleats, as if he never left. But nothing feels eerie or awkward to anyone here.
Nobody sounds the least bit concerned by his absence.
Asked if there's any drop-off from Gordon to Ekeler, the answer is an overwhelming "no."
Wideout Mike Williams calls Ekeler the strongest player on the team, regardless of position, and says the expectations for the offense haven't changed a bit. "He's a baller," Williams adds. "He's small, but he battles." Travis Benjamin agrees. This Chargers receiver appreciates Ekeler's humble beginnings as an undrafted free agent—"Austin knows where he's not trying to go back to"—and says there's always three, four, five plates to each side of any barbell Ekeler throws around in the weight room.
There's no slippage, to Benjamin, because Ekeler has the body type to handle any workload the Chargers give him.
And the expectation is the same: the Super Bowl. The Chargers want another shot at the Patriots.
"Hopefully we see that team again," Benjamin says, "and, this time, run 'em over."
Between Gordon's locker and Ekeler's locker is Watt's. He's known Gordon since they were both high school recruits in Wisconsin. They're tight. They were college roommates in Madison, with Watt mashing away as Gordon's lead blocker for three years there and now three years in the pros.
Watt gets that Gordon is trying to earn what he believes he deserves but quickly adds that Ekeler is the No. 1 right now and that Ekeler is "taking off with it."
Now, Watt and Ekeler are becoming incredibly close.
He calls Ekeler "strong as a bull," says "he can lift a house" and can still remember Ekeler's first camp, when all the vets were asking each other, Who is that? To him, as good as Gordon is, there isn't a drop-off.
"He can be great," Watt says. "When the ball's in his hands, you never know what's going to happen. He can take it to the house every time."
Like he did Sunday, when he left the Colts in his dust on that 55-yarder, with Watt telling him, "You're too strong!" on the sideline.
As nonsensical as it sounds, Gordon simply isn't on anyone's mind. It's not necessarily a matter of running backs in the NFL being irrelevant in 2019. It's a matter of Ekeler.
His presence keeps the Chargers humming.
People always pepper Ekeler with the same question: Who do you compare yourself to?
His answer is always the same: No one. And he sincerely means that. Ekeler never watched football growing up, not with so much work to do on the ranch. So he never had a favorite team, nor a favorite player.
"I don't want to be anybody else," he says. "I just want to be the best I can be.
"For me, it's about what I'm doing."
Thus, it's impossible to predict where Ekeler takes his game from here. He is, in Watt's words, a "pinball." And this pinball does it all. He'll run you over and rev into high gear and line up all over the field. He's so much more than a funky name from an obscure school.
He's an old soul. If he ever does learn guitar, he's starting with "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits. In Gunnison, only three radio stations came in clearly—Christian, country and classic rock channels. Ekeler would hear a song he loved, like this one, and think it was brand-new.
He enjoys PC video games, such as League of Legends. Back in Briggsdale, when he wasn't working, or at school, he'd cut himself off from his stepdad by locking the door and playing video games.
He's still into fishing. This past Fourth of July, he went fly fishing with his brother, Wyett, who's now 18 and a senior running back at Windsor High, about a 20-minute drive from Eaton. Afraid of the ocean, saltwater fishing here will need to wait.
And his No. 1 passion, of course, is still lifting weights. He "absolutely" believes he's one of the strongest backs in the NFL. He felt himself getting softer, briefly, as a rookie and asked the Chargers for a more strenuous lifting regimen.
For a franchise synonymous with bad luck—it's already down safety Derwin James and left tackle Russell Okung—the combination of it all, in Ekeler, has been a godsend.
So maybe it doesn't even matter when or if Gordon returns. Why would the Chargers impede what Ekeler is building?
He won't say it, of course. Nobody here will. But Ekeler is making a running back everyone considered elite look expendable...because he may be something more special.
He doesn't take this ascension for granted, citing the fact that nearly 40 players were cut from every NFL team. It's why Ekeler always goes out of his way to help younger players. He doesn't know whose life he could impact.
"If I can help, I want to help," he says. "Life's too short not to help other people."
And from his perspective, the Chargers coaches can do whatever they want if Gordon returns.
"You're the decision-makers," he says, his voice rising. "Whatever you do, if you put me on the field, I'm going to produce.
"I show up. I work as hard as I can. I get the job done."
Such is the quiet confidence that's always fueled him. He speaks of a performance like Sunday's no differently than of a day installing a fence. And after the damage was done, he exits the locker room, throws his backpack on, poses for a picture with a fan and picks up his meal to go.
It's off to Detroit next, most likely without Gordon again.
Ekeler knows he'll probably tear up there, too.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.