Running back Austin Ekeler is no stranger to being counted out.
From receiving no Division I offers out of high school, to going undrafted out of college, to making the Chargers' roster as an undrafted free agent, Ekeler's ascent from a small town kid to an integral role in Los Angeles' 2019 offense has been a product of his underdog mentality and countless hours of hard work.
"I think it's just been eye-opening to myself," Ekeler said of his 2019 season. "Just coming in two-and-a-half years ago, I was just trying to make the team. So I didn't know how big of a presence I could have on the team, myself, and the NFL."
Not knowing what 2019 would hold, Ekeler entered this season with a similar mentality to other seasons: make it difficult for head coach Anthony Lynn to take him off the field.
"I keep saying it," Ekeler said. "But it's true, I keep trying to push myself and increase my role."
That's exactly what Ekeler accomplished in 2019. From a game-winning touchdown reception in overtime in Week 1, to a record-setting 84-yard TD reception in Jacksonville, to finishing second among all NFL running backs in receiving yards (993), Ekeler put himself on the map in a big way.
"Austin, he's just so inspiring," Lynn said. "To be a rookie tryout, to make this football team and do the things that he's doing, he's a great example for everybody in that locker room."
Ekeler's ascent has inspired the likes of tight end Hunter Henry, who recently told Ekeler, "how proud I was of him and just all that he's been through. It's really cool to see."
"I remember seeing him his rookie year and no one really paid attention to him," Henry said. "He was just like this little No. 3 in OTAs and training camp. We were like, 'Who is this kid?' (Then), he explodes in the last preseason game and we said, 'Oh my gosh.'"
An unselfish attitude and a willingness to do anything the team asks of him has given the 24-year-old Ekeler the respect of his teammates while also expanding Ekeler's route tree – giving the Bolts one of the most unique offensive options in the NFL.
"He's so versatile," offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said. "Just starting to put him out wide and running the routes that he's been able to run, running the route tree, and then obviously making guys miss in the open field. That's one of his strong points."
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Ekeler bulldozes through opposing defenses while his low center of gravity gives him the evasiveness needed to cut past opposing linebackers in open space. It's no wonder his Chargers teammates dubbed him with the nickname "Pound for Pound," or "PFP" for short, as the Chargers locker room has reached the consensus that Ekeler is "pound for pound" the strongest guy on the team.
"He had a stellar year man," running back Melvin Gordon said. "Ten-plus touchdowns, (I'm) super happy for him."
From being in the running back's room together on a daily basis to having lockers adjacent to one another at the Chargers practice facility, Gordon and Ekeler have developed a bond on and off the field. Consequently, Gordon was "excited" to see Ekeler's growth in 2019 and understands the tireless work ethic PFP has to become an even better running back.
"Austin almost getting 1,000 yards, I know he's sick about that," Gordon said. "I think he had (993) he said and I was like, 'I know your pain, I had 997 (yards) rushing (in 2016), so I know exactly how you feel."
While falling just short of 1,000 yards receiving undoubtedly stings, it doesn't take away from what Ekeler accomplished this season. From ranking ninth in the NFL with 1,550 total yards from scrimmage to leading his team and finishing tied for eighth in the league with 11 total touchdowns, Ekeler had a season to remember despite not being selected to this year's Pro Bowl.
"I feel like I pushed (the limit) pretty far, but apparently not far enough to get some Pro Bowl votes," Ekeler said. "But for me I accomplished my goal that I set out to achieve at the beginning of the season, and that was an increased role on offense."
What's next for Ekeler? By maintaining the goal of increasing his role on offense every year, Pro Bowl votes and national recognition will follow. But it's keeping this mindset that keeps PFP grounded.
"I've been so focused on football… but I'm starting to affect people now," Ekeler said. "Now it's, 'How can I affect the people and community around me who have supported me?' It's been a long journey, and it's been fun, but I (want) to keep the same mindset and continue pushing myself and my role in the NFL and in the community."
From growing up in Eaton, Colorado to scoring touchdowns in Los Angeles, California, Ekeler's accomplishments in 2019 have put the rest of the league on notice.
"The league is huge and I'm just a small part of it," Ekeler said. "I'm trying to make my presence known. I think in the upcoming years I'm going to do just that."