Chargers' Austin Ekeler uses dogged work ethic to pay it forward

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler strides into the room like the giant he is. He's only 5-foot-10, but his height belies a spirit that stretches him far taller. Ekeler is in Santa Barbara to open a state-of-the art gym at one of the oldest high schools in the state, Santa Barbara High School. It's something these 2,200 students have never really had and something that is near and dear to his heart.

"I never really thought about it and I listened to my community," he said as the gym opened June 16 with about 30 student-athletes present. "They asked, 'Austin, what did you do to get so far and make all these accomplishments?' and I started thinking about it."

And he realized it was in the weight room where his dreams took root.

Ekeler is a workout obsessive with washboard abs and bulging biceps. He got them by always proving what nobody really thought he could do at 5-10. Mainly play running back in the NFL, which he has done since making the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017.

But he also worked hard in the weight room, and when he learned that Santa Barbara High was filled with students who, like him at one time, lacked resources to build muscles and encourage wellness, he called on his own newly formed foundation -- the Austin Ekeler Foundation -- for help and found an empty space at Santa Barbara High School.

"It's a beautiful place, but it's 70% free and reduced lunch," Ekeler said. "They need help. It's not a private school where they get tons of funds, not everything is given to them. They needed our help, and I saw an opportunity to do so."

Ekeler knows something about not having anything given to him. He was raised in tiny Eaton, Colorado, by a single mother. He had to do chores while living on a farm, such as breaking apart frozen ice in water tanks so the animals could have water. He built fences and lugged feed. It's where he says he developed his work ethic; football became a way out.

He was recruited by Division II Western State (now known as Western Colorado University), located in Gunnison, Colorado, with an enrollment of 3,500. Ekeler went on to break every rushing record the school had, scoring 63 touchdowns and finishing with 5,857 career rushing yards. And it's where he developed the air-guitar celebration as a touchdown dance, which he still does as a Charger.

Ekeler's now a superstar as a go-to back and receiver. It's what he knows.

He's also determined to be more than a football player, volunteering his time at Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles to enforce the importance of youth wellness. Ekeler and his girlfriend, Taylor Frick, also do workout videos that are "slightly" unorthodox with her on his shoulders as he squats and on his back for pushups.

He has also contributed big time on the field, with 73 rushes for 356 yards and four touchdowns in six games for the 4-2 Chargers. And as a receiver, a role in which Chargers coach Brandon Staley has said he will continue to use him, Ekeler has 27 catches for 242 yards and three more scores. He seems to bounce off and through tacklers.

"In the run game, Austin's got really good vision," Staley said. "He's really good on contact. He's the type of guy that gets better as the game goes on, the more carries he's given. ... Austin's been fantastic."

Ekeler signed a four-year, $24.5 million extension in March 2020 but hasn't let up on the work ethic. It's what he knows.

"The way I was raised helped me most," he said. "I was raised ... to work hard and not complain. ... It's all I knew. It's all I knew."

Ekeler stood in a semicircle with the athletes at Santa Barbara High School, knowing most of them would not go on to play college sports. But he remains proud of what he has done and what he has given back.

"It comes down to what are you passionate about," he told them. "You have more time to make skills doing that. Trying your hardest always breeds something different and better. It's a great lesson in life."

One he knows well.