IRVINE, Calif. -- Austin Ekeler was nervous.
In the spring of 2017, the last day of Los Angeles Chargers OTAs, the undrafted rookie out of Western Colorado was sitting in the office of newly minted Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. His mind was racing. But he had no idea what to say.
He knew he hadn't had the strongest performance, but not because of lack of effort on his part. Ekeler is a self-described gym rat. Growing up in rural Briggsdale, Colorado, he spent his summers pitching fences for his then-stepfather's fencing company from sunrise until sundown. Work ethic has never been an issue. He just wasn't getting reps.
"I wanted to get on the field and show I'm a great athlete. I can run, I can catch, I can tackle. I could do whatever you need me to do," Ekeler recalled recently from his home in Irvine. "And so, I remember going to my running back coach and asking, 'Hey, man, what do I need to do to get more reps?'"
It's hard to imagine Ekeler being in that place, considering what he accomplished in his breakout 2019 season. His 92 receptions for 993 yards were behind only Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and his eight touchdown receptions topped all running backs and were the most in one season by an undrafted running back. He also added 557 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
On March 6, the tireless hard work -- ingrained in him from those miserable Colorado summers -- earned him a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension, with $15 million guaranteed.
But as one of six running backs in camp in 2017, Ekeler's reps were limited. He would get six or fewer on some days during an entire practice. The team's starting running back was getting almost all of them.
"Melvin Gordon was the No. 1 guy and [former running backs coach Alfredo Roberts] was like, 'I need to get him as many looks as he can get because he's our guy right now.' And that was a little discouraging because I didn't know that going in," Ekeler said.
As he sat in the spotless yet sparsely furnished kitchen of his new home -- which he moved into this spring just as the coronavirus pandemic halted everything, including furniture deliveries -- the details from that spring and summer came back easily. For Ekeler, a relentless perfectionist, his disappointing performance was at the forefront.
"I didn't have a perfect camp by any means," he said. "I was making mistakes left and right. I was playing really slow just because I was thinking so much."
The realization of his place in the pecking order was sobering for Ekeler, but it didn't dissuade him. Minicamp and training camp were still ahead; then, there was a month and a half before the regular season began. He had time. He also had nothing to lose.
It's a lesson from Ekeler's journey: It never hurts to ask.
"So when it came to the end of camp," he said, "I was thinking, 'OK, I gave everything I could.' I wanted to make sure that I went and talked to my coaches to see what I needed to work on. I went straight to Coach Lynn. I had never talked to him before."
Ekeler was nervous. Sweaty and shook, with Lynn staring at him, Ekeler struggled to find the words to explain his intentions. Stumbling, he finally settled on: "I like the way you coach!" Even now, three years later, Ekeler can't help but look down, shake his head and laugh about that.
"And then I remember asking, 'What do I have to do to make the team?'" Ekeler said.
Lynn didn't waste any time, giving Ekeler a brief to-do list. "Protect the quarterback. Hang on to the ball. Go talk to Coach Stew."
Confused, but without losing that youthful, rookie optimism, Ekeler obliged.
"OK, well that doesn't really give me anything," he recalled thinking. "So hopefully I can get something from Coach Stew."
George Stewart, the Chargers' special teams coordinator, has been an NFL coach since 1989; he spent 17 years as a wide receivers coach for the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. But that isn't why Lynn sent Ekeler his way.
"They'll come to me, but he wasn't passing them off," Stewart said from his office in Costa Mesa. "He just knows that for a young player to have ability to make an impact early on the football team, [it] is through special teams."
Stewart remembers Ekeler's approach vividly.
"When I first saw him," he said, "I thought he was a ball boy coming up to ask me questions about the balls at practice.
"I know what it's like. I was an undrafted free agent coming to league in 1981 [as a guard from Arkansas]. I love my draft choices, but I'm always partial to those guys because it's like they don't get a fair shake sometimes."
The meeting lasted more than 40 minutes, with Stewart laying out in detail his vision for Ekeler that summer.
"He was telling me, 'I could see you on kickoffs, on punt, make sure you're doing this, you need to work on that.'" Ekeler said. "And so I was writing all this stuff down, and I told my running back coach, I said, 'Look, I'm making this team.' He chuckled and was like, 'Yeah, we got a lot of work to do.'"
"He was a pest," Stewart said, laughing. "I'm just being real. He wanted to make our team so bad. I heard the old saying, 'Hungry mouth always gets fed.' And he was the guy who had a hungry mouth."
Ekeler emerged from the Chargers' complex free from the nerves that had plagued him the entire afternoon. But as he walked, he read over the notes he made from those meetings: his to-do list. Suddenly, he felt lost.
"I had a little bit of an uneasy feeling," he said. "I understood that it was a long shot for me, but I was willing to do anything it took. I was all-in."
For the following weeks, Ekeler -- the gym rat, the pest -- proved it. He embraced special teams.
"I knew I needed to stand out somehow," Ekeler explained. "People were emphasizing how important special teams were for backups. And so, that caught my focus. I wasn't even on special teams. I was on scout-team special teams."
Word of Ekeler's physical abilities and on-field demeanor quickly began to catch on.
"He's making plays in the punt team and he's heckling people on kickoffs," Stewart recalled. "He's doing a great job returning kicks. I remember talking to Coach Lynn, and I'm saying, 'Coach, we have a guy here that's pretty doggone good. We can't block him. He's a little pest. You think I'm kidding, but this Austin Ekeler's going to make our football team.'"
At the end of summer 2017, back at Chargers Park in San Diego, the Chargers held their first official team meeting. Lynn took a moment to congratulate the players who made the team. He then singled out Ekeler, the undrafted rookie out of Western Colorado, and signaled for him to stand up.
After a long applause, Lynn looked at Ekeler, who still remembers exactly how his coach introduced him.
"Ekeler came to me and asked me how he could make the team," Lynn shared with the room. "And I didn't even know his name."
On July 28, Ekeler, sporting a powder-blue medical-grade face mask, walked into the Chargers' training facility with the self-assurance of someone who belongs, someone with $15 million in the bank. The poise to approach coaches as an undrafted rookie, the anxiety and uncertainty that followed and, eventually, the clarity of what he needed to do all contributed to the growth and maturity of his character in only three seasons.
"Looking back, I feel like I did most of the right steps," Ekeler said. "Maybe I could have done something different here and there, but now I try to share that experience with all the young guys coming in. It's about trying to get yourself an opportunity to get on the field, to show coaches that they can trust you, that you can make plays."
"It was just one of those situations that he wanted to make a change for himself as a pro football player, wanted to have opportunities to make something happen," Stewart said. "And he didn't say, 'Running back.' He didn't say, 'I want to be a kicker.' He said, 'I want to play pro football.'"
Ekeler doesn't like to dwell on those impromptu meetings three years ago. But he looks back at that day fondly, knowing he made his intentions clear, and his intuition was right:
It never hurts to ask.