From Friday night lights to a chance to shine on Sundays: Eaton’s Austin Ekeler has used influence of mother, family, friends, community, skeptics to realize NFL dream
This story was originally published in May 2017 in The Greeley Tribune.
EATON — A half-decade ago, then-Colorado State University football coach Jim McElwain visited Eaton High School to take a look at potential recruits.
Bill Mondt, Eaton’s football coach at the time, slyly took McElwain into the school’s gymnasium, where Austin Ekeler was shooting hoops, practicing for the upcoming basketball season.
McElwain appeared a bit perplexed as to why Mondt — a former college coach in his own right — was trying to pass Ekeler off as a legitimate Division I prospect. Ekeler stood, maybe, 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
But Mondt was about to let McElwain in on a not-so-tightly kept a secret.
“We walked in, and I said, ‘You know, (Ekeler) can dunk a basketball,’ ” Mondt said. ” ‘Oh, noooo,’ McElwain said. So, I had him come over. That’s when McElwain said, ‘Can you dunk a basketball?’ Austin just kind of grinned.”
Then, Ekeler skied high and jammed that basketball, before continuing on with practice.
Impressed but not completely sold, McElwain passed on Ekeler, who instead went on to Division II Western State Colorado University in Gunnison where he was one of the greatest running backs in program history.
It was one of many times Ekeler found himself with something to prove.
Nearly five years later, Ekeler would wow next-level scouts again with his jaw-dropping vertical leap and amazing all-around athleticism.
This time, scouts ultimately wouldn’t pass, as a bigger, stronger — albeit not much taller — and every bit as motivated Ekeler has shown why he spent all those years refusing to settle.
He’s remained hell-bent on not taking “no” for an answer. So, when the Los Angeles Chargers looked beyond the modest height and small-school background and offered Ekeler an undrafted free agent contract just moments after the NFL Draft on April 29, Ekeler was quick to say yes.
BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN …
Ekeler was born in Lincoln, Neb., spent a handful of his childhood years in Colorado Springs and was raised in Eaton, along with his younger brother Wyett Adams, by a single mother, Suzanne Ekeler-Adams.
Suzanne played college basketball at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She has coached high school sports for years while teaching math.
She’s always been blunt, straight-forward and honest when discussing a kid’s ability, prospects and potential — particularly with her own sons.
In short, she’s far from the type of parent that has her kid penciled in as a Division I prospect and future pro from the delivery room.
So when she began to detect her son’s extraordinary athletic ability when he was only about 9 years old, there was merit.
“He was a star from the beginning,” said Suzanne, who teaches at Roosevelt High School in Johnstown. “Austin making it where he is today doesn’t surprise me. When his high school career was over and college season was over, I wasn’t sad because I knew he was not done.”
Austin’s football career will take him to Los Angeles on Thursday where he will begin his pro career with a rookie minicamp.
As for where his athletics career started?
Suzanne wanted her son to explore a wide range of sports before honing in on any one in particular.
So Ekeler played everything from baseball and tee-ball to basketball at an early age. However, his first venture into sports actually came on the soccer pitch.
He wasn’t a huge fan of soccer.
But if he wasn’t going to devote hours upon hours to soccer, he was going to spend that time playing something else.
Even at a young age, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of quit in him. He gets that from his mother, fiercely completive and completely adverse to complacency, as well.
“She was a basketball player, a college athlete, as well. I remember playing basketball with her, and she never wanted to lose to us,” Ekeler said with a laugh. “One time, we were at a basketball practice and I remember her elbowing me in the eye, giving me a black eye. She didn’t mean to. She was just going 100 percent.”
Suzanne has raised Austin and Wyett, a freshman at Windsor High School, with the support of a tight-knit family locally, as well as from Nebraska and Kansas.
She counts her blessings rather than even entertaining the thought of asking for sympathy.
“My boys have been everything to me, being a single mom and raising them both,” Suzanne said. “I do not know how I was so blessed to become their mother.”
Similarly, when Ekeler’s immense accomplishments and gaudy statistics in high school and college were overlooked because he went to small schools, he never allowed himself to be pitied.
When Division I programs asked Ekeler if he would switch positions from running back, or they snubbed him altogether, there was no “woe is me”.
That’s not how Suzanne raised him.
“She’s been a huge influence, she’s the person I’ve looked up to my entire life,” Ekeler said of his mother. “She’s done such a good job raising my little brother and me. She’s the person I’ve always gone to.”
Ekeler grew up on a farm near Briggsdale, just east of Eaton. The chores that come with such a life helped him develop, at a young age, his unmatched work ethic and sense of responsibility.
“He had to take care of stuff,” Suzanne said. “He had major responsibilities when he was little. He had to work hard. It wasn’t easy going out, breaking ice at 6 or 7 in the morning so the horses could drink. He’s had that work ethic instilled in him since he was little.”
That desire to put forth maximum effort in everything he does has only grown with time.
“It’s an addiction,” Suzanne said. “If I could say my kid has an addiction, it’s working hard and continuing to want to better himself.”
Shortly after Suzanne and Austin moved to Eaton, Austin fit in with a group of like-minded kids.
They fully embraced the town’s rich sports culture and weren’t afraid to put in the work needed to excel.
Like Ekeler, many of those kids — Trent Sieg, Britten Abbott, Dalton Shoop, etc. — went on to have athletic success after high school.
“There were probably about 10 of them that all kind of had that same mentality of teamwork, working for each other and working hard — no individualism,” Suzanne said. “They were really good young men. … The guys that were around him made him better. And he made them better.”
While other kids might have been locked onto their video game consoles or huddled around the television, Ekeler and his group of friends were staying active — honing their skills in football, basketball, baseball, you name it.
“We started playing together when we were 10 years old, maybe even earlier than that,” Ekeler said. “We kind of had a brotherhood going on, and it just traveled with us throughout middle school and high school, as well.”
In high school, Ekeler had to prove himself on the football field, just like he has done numerous times since then.
Mondt never just handed opportunity, responsibility and playing time to a player, especially a youngster like Ekeler, who first began to make noise as a sophomore.
Also, Mondt has long been cautions not to over-utilize young players out of fear that player would become burned out by the time he is a senior.
So, Ekeler didn’t play varsity as a freshman. He was third on the team in carries as a sophomore. He rushed for 1,544 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior in 2011.
Mondt recalls that during Ekeler’s sophomore season, “after one of the games, he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, are you ever going to let me carry the ball?’ And, honestly, I did give him the ball more after that because he was ready.”
By his senior season in ’12, he was a threat in the punting game, the return game, on defense and, on yeah, he carried the ball 236 times for 2,398 yards and 39 touchdowns — averaging 10.16 yards per carry and 218 yards per game.
As Ekeler winded down his high school career, Mondt, who coached at the Division I level for New Mexico and Colorado, told anyone who would listen that Ekeler is the best running back he’s ever coached. A somewhat bold statement at the time, Ekeler has since made Mondt’s declaration a much more obvious one.
Troy Hoffman — coach of rival Platte Valley — started as a mere adversary of Ekeler’s but quickly became a growing admirer.
He offered to place phone calls to whomever necessary to help Ekeler land the Division I scholarship many felt he deserved. Now, he’s a firm believer Ekeler will find a way to make his mark on Sundays.
It was during that transitional sophomore year of high school in which Ekeler transformed from just another guy to “the guy” on Hoffman’s game plan.
In a regular season finale Platte Valley needed to win to secure the league title in 2010, the Broncos were feeling good after pulling ahead 23-14 just before halftime.
Then, a relatively unknown 5-foot-9, 145-pound spitfire blasted through Platte Valley’s normally airtight coverage team 85 yards like he was shot out of a cannon. The Broncos held on for the 29-24 win, but that impressive display of athleticism on a routine kickoff put Ekeler on the map.
“Honestly, we were all standing there on the sidelines and we’re going, ‘Who is that kid?’ because when he took it, he was gone,” Hoffman recalled. “Then, every year after that, we started scouting him. We knew who No. 30 was.”
At that time, Ekeler’s sole intent was to simply earn more playing time.
“My biggest goal was just to start playing under Friday night lights,” Ekeler said. “That used to be the highlight of the school year, playing under the lights on Fridays in front of your hometown, especially a town like Eaton, Colorado.”
Now, Ekeler is on the cusp of playing on Sundays.
ANY ‘TAKEN’ SUNDAY
Eaton coach and teacher Dean Grable has served as a mentor of Ekeler’s for years.
He taught him in physical education class, he coached him in basketball and football and followed his track career closely.
He saw enough of Ekeler’s record-breaking career at Western State to testify Ekeler did the same things in college as he did in high school.
While the opponents change and the challenges intensify, Austin remains the same Austin.
Now, averaging around 200 yards per game would be asking entirely too much from Ekeler at the game’s highest level.
But Grable has seen Ekeler brush off way too many doubters to think for a second that Ekeler won’t find a way, somehow, someday to play on Sundays.
“There’s no doubt, there’s no doubt, with his work ethic and his character,” Grable said. “You’d be foolish not to believe in a guy like Ekeler. It’s mind-boggling if you don’t. And, it was mind-boggling when he was a senior coming out of high school that all these schools didn’t want him.”
Ekeler spent the final day of the draft at Suzanne’s new house in Windsor, in the company of his mother, little brother and a few of his closest friends.
The real excitement came after the final picks were called. Undrafted but also undeterred, Ekeler and his agent, Cameron Weiss, quickly worked out a deal with the Chargers after assessing their vast options.
Everyone celebrated. Suzanne reflected on all of it.
The farm work. The soccer games. Fishing trips Austin took with his grandpa, Bob. An entire town rallying around her son under the lights at Eaton High School. The trips to Gunnison to watch him rewrite Western State’s record book. The game-changing plays. The intense dedication in the classroom. The forever-cherished times he’s spent with Wyett.
The fact her son is living his dream.
“It took me awhile for it to sink in,” Suzanne said. “Honestly, probably for about an hour, everybody in my house was just hootin’ and hollerin’ and screaming. … He’s finally with people (on the Chargers) that get it, that get his mentality, that get where he’s at.”