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The Sad Ballad of The Fighting Ekelers

Austin Ekeler is O.K. with missing out on the fantasy football playoffs—he found a new hobby, a new community, and a new way to connect with people.

Austin Ekeler wants everyone to win a fantasy football championship this weekend, even though, he must confess, he did not make the playoffs in any of his leagues. Every one of his fantasy teams—each known as “The Fighting Ekelers”—scrapped valiantly, to no avail.

Ekeler is, of course, aware of the resulting hilarity. Because a) he’s a fantasy stalwart in real life, a scorer of touchdowns and amasser of points as the primary running back on a high-flying offense; b) his entire NFL existence is basically a fantasy in football; and c) he wasn’t opposed to utilizing information only he could glean. He never shared publicly any injuries or recovery timetables, but did occasionally make roster adjustments based on the pro football equivalent of insider trading.

Throughout the 2021 season, Ekeler savored wins and his upward career trajectory while dealing with injuries, losses and COVID-19—both with his actual NFL team, the Chargers, and his various iterations of TFE. That makes him the rare pro football star who not only doesn’t disdain fantasy football, but who came to recently embrace the hobby he shares with millions of obsessed fans.

Ekeler met with his coaches before the season to ask how they felt about a balanced workload rather than a bellcow one—enough touches for rhythm but not so many that he’d wear down. He knew how that news might be received by the fantasy community: as harmful, essentially, to the teams that aren’t real (except to their rabid managers). Ekeler disagrees with that notion, saying a manageable snap count reduces his odds of injury and bolsters his potential to play more weeks and, ultimately, more seasons. “And it’s not like I haven’t been productive,” he says with a laugh. It’s true. A fantasy manager with zero championships has helped plenty of strangers seize virtual titles, while transforming into the kind of player fantasy experts drafted in Round 1.

While growing up in tiny Eaton, Colo.—population roughly 5,800—the NFL was little more than a fantasy for Ekeler, and fantasy football was something he tried and quit after one season. It wasn’t memorable, beyond the newbie mistakes he made. Like showing up at a friend’s house for the draft with a list of players he wanted on his team, but not realizing that each player could only be on one fantasy team within the league. Or having a team logo—him, flexing biceps, with teammates resting atop it—designed. Or using his first selection on—gasp!—a quarterback, taking Drew Brees and naming his team The DBs, which counterparts sometimes confused with defensive backs. Ekeler cannot remember his record that season, only the ballpark. “Got destroyed,” he says.

From there, the only fantasy football in Ekeler’s life was his actual career. He starred at Division II Western State Colorado University, playing for the school that didn’t insist he switch positions, then competing with eight other running backs for roster spots.

He watched 27 other backs get drafted in 2017, then clawed his way onto the Chargers roster as an undrafted free agent who mostly played on special teams. His touches shot up in ’18, and, the next year, he caught 92 passes.

By then, he understood why many other NFL players loathed the fantasy version of their sport. They didn’t like the idea that someone(s) “owned them,” nor the negativity inherent. Even in his rookie campaign, when any reasonable human wouldn’t have expected much production, he fumbled against Jacksonville—after scoring twice—and received a vicious Twitter message. It read: Go kill yourself. “Wow,” he thought. “Pretty dramatic.”

That message—along with thousands of supportive missives sent his way—signaled something to Ekeler beyond hatred, delusion, or the worst parts of human nature. He saw both a passionate community and how passionately it cared about one, specific thing. He saw football fans who maybe didn’t like the Chargers, but who could, if all went well, root for him. He felt appreciated, after years of being appreciated only by family and close friends. So he wondered: Wasn’t there value to be found there? Didn’t they—him and his “managers”—want the same thing? Couldn’t he ignore the toxicity and look at the positives instead?

Ekeler filed this idea away, and, as his career continued to take off, he started to engage with fans in other ways, like on Twitch, the live streaming service. He played video games. He hosted virtual workouts during the pandemic. Eventually, the dots connected. Wasn’t fantasy football the same thing, a way to build a community and strengthen his support? “I saw a huge opportunity there,” he says.

He was right—and wrong about the scope, which was bigger even than the “huge opportunity” he expected. One of his first Twitch followers was Mark Filchenko, a software engineer and Chargers diehard who couldn’t believe an actual NFL running back, let alone one of Ekeler’s growing stature, wanted to engage with real fans. Filchenko watched as four followers grew to 400, then, eventually, to more than 30,000. When Ekeler decided to incorporate fantasy football in his streaming last season, he asked Filchenko to become his moderator, another step in growing the community he envisioned.

In 2020, Ekeler gained 933 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns. His season was cut short by six games he lost to injury and “disappointing” relative only to the new standard he had set. He also made his return to fantasy football the same year. His final roster featured stars (Davante Adams, Lamar Jackson), emerging talents (Tee Higgins, Raheem Mostert), aging veterans (Jimmy Graham) and, in a twist, a teammate (Jalen Guyton; Filchenko says that as soon as Ekeler made that pick he knew who would win the battle to be the Chargers’ No. 3 receiver). Ekeler finished 16th in a 20-team league.

Ekeler says he would prefer to discuss fantasy football rather than manage his own teams. But he also believes he would lose some of the desired connection by not directly participating. In piloting his own squad, he figured he could carry the small-town vibe he loved into a larger space that could seem venomous, but, in his experience, was welcoming. When he gravitated toward fantasy football, that world rotated toward him even more. His Twitch following migrated to other platforms, as thousands boosted his follower counts, donated to the Austin Ekeler Foundation and, above all, competed to gain entry into one of his leagues, with slots determined by the fervency of support.

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This season, Ekeler fielded three teams and also hosted a Yahoo! Sports podcast, Ekeler’s Edge. In one draft, he held the second pick. While other members advocated in the league’s group chat for the person holding the selection before Ekeler to take only member available to draft, they opted for Christian McCaffrey. Which left Ekeler with only one glorious choice: to draft himself.

His virtual season, much like his real-life one, featured a scorching start. Ekeler, the football player, scored in four of his first five games. The Chargers went 4–1 to open the season. Meanwhile, The Fighting Ekelers—featuring a crosstown rival (Matthew Stafford), emerging stars (CeeDee Lamb and Terry McLaurin) and the rare player/manager in real/fantasy football—started 7–0.

“People [in the league] were amazed,” Filchenko says. “They’re like, Wait, he’s playing pretty well, like he’s actually maintaining his team.”

His NFL team noted the connection, too. After the Browns defense lifted Ekeler into the end zone late in the fourth quarter of a close game in Week 5 when he purposely tried not to score, his coach, Brandon Staley, stood before the team and joked, “I don’t know if Austin and [offensive coordinator] Joe Lombardi had some plan for their fantasy teams or what, but we didn’t need that test at the end.”

Alas, Ekeler understands better than his fantasy cohorts just how much success in the NFL is tied to injuries and so many shifting but uncontrollable factors (roster decisions, quality of opponents, schemes, teammates). He entered this season believing the Chargers, a team loaded with talent and helmed by a new, innovative coach in Staley, and a young flame-throwing quarterback in Justin Hebert oozed playoff potential. “There’s no reason we can’t make a run,” he told himself. Ekeler also wanted the Chargers to prove their consistency. They have not, settling in on the fringe of the postseason picture after last Sunday’s upset loss in Houston.

The offense certainly played at an elite level through much of the season; the Chargers still rank fourth in total offense at (390.2 yards per game) and eighth in scoring (27.2 points). Ekeler scored four times in Week 11 against the Steelers and currently ranks second in the league in touchdowns (17) and eighth in yards from scrimmage (1,347). But for all entities—the Chargers, TFE and Ekeler himself—the torrent start gave way to an uneven slide.

Ekeler injured an ankle in Week 4 against the Raiders, and the bruise only worsened while the pain never subsided. He hasn’t reached full health since, but he doesn’t believe the injury limited his movement much, either. Except, maybe, against the Ravens in Week 6, when he required so much tape on his cleats that the mass messed with his balance.

There were other injuries, because there always are in a sport where the damage to participants is separated only by severity. But, in part because of his moderate workload, none of those bumps and bruises sidelined him for a full game through 15 weeks. Only COVID-19 did, and just as fantasy football semifinals started.

Ekeler almost played against the Texans, his hopes raised by a confusing mix of contrasting COVID-19 test results. After losing to the Chiefs on Dec. 16, he took two tests; one came back positive, the other negative. Ekeler wondered if, despite a sore throat, the positive was false. He took two more tests that Sunday, Dec. 19, having played on Thursday night. Positive and negative again. The next day, his results were only positive, and he didn’t clear NFL protocols in time to return.

He would have picked up Justin Jackson, his backfield mate in L.A. who elevated more than a few managers into fantasy championships. Sadly, The Fighting Ekelers had finished ninth, far behind Craigh2072, the team that won the season scoring title. Ekeler—and Ekelers—finished behind “Get lit in the Mosh Pit,” “Jaylen Waddled Away” and “Flying Flamingos.”

Still, what he sought in fantasy football—community—remained, now stronger than before. Filchenko even moved to California, where he and Ekeler became business partners and began developing their own not-yet-released app. The idea is similar to Ekeler’s push into fantasy football: to connect and engage, everything interactive, except instead of going to various apps for disparate functions, put everything—social media, streaming, video games, NFTs, fantasy football—in one place, the community that Ekeler is continuing to build. They’re already in the development stage. Thanks, in no small part, to fantasy football and a fantastical career.

Ekeler doesn’t envision himself as the first fantasy star turned fantasy expert after he retires. Instead, he foresees something broader, a way to enrich the lives of the same community of fantasy footballers who came to embrace him. When he didn’t make the initial AFC Pro Bowl roster, guess where the loudest calls of “snub” came from?

At 26, Ekeler doesn’t see retirement on the near horizon. What he does see is championships. A Super Bowl triumph with the Chargers, first and foremost. And a fantasy title for The Fighting Ekelers to match.

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