It wasn't all that many autumns ago when Austin Ekeler was churning out huge numbers at tiny Western State Colorado, making noise on the Division II stage with some small, but enduring hope that it would lead him to an NFL future.
Eventually, that production and focus led to Ekeler earning a spot with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent. And after three seasons of continued improvement as a versatile running back, the 24-year-old was rewarded with a four-year, $24.5 million deal; Ekeler having weaved his way into the Chargers' plans for the future not long after it seemed so uncertain.
"It meant a lot to me, just because this is the team that, I guess, took a chance with me as an undrafted free agent," Ekeler said Tuesday afternoon, his NFL star now shining as bright as it ever has, even on an overcast day in Southern California where he's making the rounds at the NFL Network. "After my third year, I became restricted and they could've tendered me and said, 'OK, good luck on the open market.' But they showed that hey, 'You're our guy.' We want you on this team.
"I feel like it's been more than just play. I feel like they like the way I represent the team and things like that. There's more than just the football side. I think the complete package is what really brought them to actually coming to a deal."
As much as anything, the Chargers have secured Ekeler for a most uncertain future where the Bolts are concerned. With the Chargers bound for a new home -- SoFi Stadium -- they'll make a move in Southern California, while luminaries such as longtime quarterback Philip Rivers, offensive tackle Russell Okung and likely running back Melvin Gordon won't make the trip.
Ekeler, shifty on the field, is locked up to be a constant in the locker room and out amid myriad change.
"It really is [going to be different]," Ekeler said. "I was actually talking to our [general manager], Tom Telesco. And he's just like, 'There's gonna be a new aura around the Chargers next year.' [Antonio] Gates is gone -- retired. Philip, who's been there forever -- these guys that have been there forever are starting to move out. You know one of our leaders, Russell Okung, he's going over to the Panthers, so we've lost a lot of our leadership that we used to have. And that's new opportunities for guys to step up. And we're moving to a new stadium, as well.
"There's a lot more new opportunities for guys to step up on the team.
"I'm looking forward to this year as far as that aspect, as far as getting this team going, because now I've been here a little bit and put in some work and continued to climb."
The climb is an aspect of Ekeler's approach since all the way back to high school football.
His focus and practice of concentrating on the opportunity at the moment have seen the 5-foot-10, 200-pound dual threat improve on his rushing and receiving yards in each of his three seasons. The latest, in which he stood out in the shadow of a Melvin Gordon holdout, saw him finish the 2019 campaign with 993 yards receiving on 92 receptions to accompany 557 yards rushing on 132 carries.
"I just try to continue maintaining the same mindset as I've [had] just even throughout college and high school. Going back all the way to high school, it was always just be in the moment," Ekeler said. "I got into college, I was like, OK, now I'm in college, now I'm going to try to be the best I can in this moment and see what comes from that. I always, you know, have thought about the NFL in the back of my mind.
"After my freshman year, I was like offensive player of the year, things like that. So my coach approached me and he was like, 'Hey, what are you goals for next year?' So I had all these goals and things like that and then at the bottom, I just put the NFL Shield, with no words or anything. And so it was in the back of my mind, but it wasn't what I was focusing on."
It was during an outstanding junior season -- one which boasted DII highs of 203.9 all-purpose yards per game and 12.6 points per game -- in which more notoriety came and the goal in the back of Ekeler's mind came more into focus.
"I just kept going through my years," he said. "After my junior year, I had a really good year. It was kind of like, 'I might have an opportunity [for the NFL].'"
Once an NFL hopeful, Ekeler has become a focal point for the Chargers; if nothing more, his new contract speaks to that. He's also a realist and knows it's unlikely he'll be sharing reps with Gordon anymore. He's rooting for him, though -- as a running back, he believes he has to.
"For me as a player in the NFL, we need Melvin to get paid," Ekeler said. "Cause the market for running backs is a lot lower than any other market as far as pay and things like that. It's a double-edged sword. We want him here, but we also want him to get paid. Especially as a running back -- and all the other running backs -- we need some people to set the market, the Pro Bowl guys need to set the market.
And though Ekeler got paid, don't count on it changing his mindset or approach to building on every opportunity as it comes.
"I have the same mentality going forward, as far as now it's been build off last year," he said. "It's literally just been build and build and build and so that's how I see this moment; it's just another pedestal to build off of."