CARLSBAD, Calif. — A poster of Carmelo Anthony hung on the wall of Austin Ekeler as a youth. The former Denver Nuggets star had signed it. Even though Ekeler had never met him, the poster inspired him.
Growing up on a ranch, Ekeler admitted the only connection he had to a pro sport was that Anthony poster, which motivated him throughout his childhood.
That poster is why Ekeler hosted a football camp in Carlsbad, California.
“When we come out and make that connection, it’s so powerful in these kids’ lives,” Ekeler said. “I don’t know where it will take them, but I know it’ll sit in their room somewhere, sit on something, and they’ll be looking up to that. So that’s really what it is about today.”
There was a line of kids circling Carlsbad High School wearing powder-blue jerseys with names of players such as Justin Herbert, Ekeler, Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen, to name a few.
More than 200 attended the camp held by the Los Angeles Chargers’ running back.
“Obviously, down in San Diego, there’s a lot of love for the Chargers, and so I knew I would be welcomed with open arms,” Ekeler said.
Ekeler has been vocal lately about the current state of the running back position in the NFL and its lack of growth. When a quarterback or another position players gets a new contract, the next guy can make more. It’s the payment ladder.
That isn’t happening with running backs.
“It’s keep making an impact. You can’t deny that, hey, if we go out there and keep making plays, it’s going to be seen,” Ekeler said of his approach. “Hey, we deserve to be compensated; that’s what it comes down to for us. So nothing really changes. We’re going to go out and play as hard as we possibly can, and then hopefully, we get compensated for that as well.”
Earlier this week, running backs Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys), Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) and Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) were not offered contract extensions and will have to play the 2023 season on the franchise tag.
Multiple reports indicate that Jacobs and Barkley will sit out training camp.
Ekeler and some of his fellow backs around the league started a group chat to share ideas about how to move forward.
“Talking about things, just seeing if there’s a chance where, hey, what can we do if there’s anything that we can do,” Ekeler said. “We want our guys to get compensated for the value that they add to the team. So we’re just talking through things that maybe could come to fruition to help us out.”
The Chargers are a week away from starting training camp, which will be Ekeler’s seventh. They are coming off a 10-7 season in which they made the playoffs but fell apart in the second half in a road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That is in the past and the team is motivated heading into the new season.
“I know that I’m coming in hot; I’m coming in swinging, got a lot to prove,” Ekeler said. “I know the rest of the team does as well, and so whether people feel like we’re under the radar doesn’t matter for us because we have a job to do.”
A new voice directing the offense this season will be coordinator Kellen Moore. There is much excitement over Moore getting to work with Herbert and the weapons around him.
Ekeler said he knows Moore will be judged during the season. Can he make adjustments? Can this team succeed with him at the helm?
“How can Kellen put a game plan together and use us in a way that we can hopefully win more games?” Ekeler said. “So, that’s when we’ll really get the real test of how good of a coach he is using as his assets and players out there.”
The Chargers have added some pieces through the draft and are returning other players who were injured and sat out parts of last season.
Even though the Chargers might be under the radar on some level, fans and some around the league expect them to be a good team this season.
“We’ve earned that respect that people expect big things from us,” Ekeler said. “Now it’s up for us to go put that into action.”