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Back to school: Chargers' Austin Ekeler returns to college to get his degree

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- With an opportunity to make an NFL team, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler made the difficult choice of putting off the completion of college to prepare for the NFL draft.

Now that he's made it in the pros, Ekeler is back at Western State Colorado finishing up his final semester.

Ekeler, 22, is four classes away from graduating with a business degree with an emphasis in energy management. He is taking classes in Oil and Gas Law and Prospects Economics of Oil and Gas, along with two elective classes, to finish out his college degree. Ekeler said he would like to take part in graduation ceremonies in May if the Chargers' offseason schedule doesn't conflict.

An internship with Noble Energy during his time in college sparked Ekeler's interest in the energy field. Ekeler's mother Suzanne Ekeler is a high school math teacher and appreciated her son's willingness to go back and finish his degree.

"She's really supported any decision I've made," Ekeler said. "She trusts my judgment, and trusts that I'm doing my due diligence and talking to right people in making the decisions I make.

"Either way, I think she would have understood. It was more my decision to come back, but I think she's happy because she's a teacher herself, so education is important to her. I had one semester left, and I knew the longer I waited the less likely I would have come back."

Western State Colorado is a Division II school in Gunnison, Colorado, about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Ekeler's hometown of Eaton, with a population of 9,000.

Ekeler attended Eaton High School, the same high school as former Chargers defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.

Ekeler said he had already registered for spring classes last year, then realized all of the work he'd have to put in to get ready for the draft and decided to take the semester off.

Now that he's played in the NFL for a season, Ekeler said he's achieved minor celebrity status on campus, taking pictures and signing autographs.

"It's still growing on me I guess and taking some adjusting, as far as people wanting to take pictures of me in public and things like that," Ekeler said. "I was there before for three-and-a-half years, I'm the same person but now people have a different look at me, so that's taking some adjustment to get used to.

"I love the days where someone wants to take a picture with me and I make their day. That makes my day by making their day, just because of what I've done I guess it's important to them and is inspiring. It's taken some adjustment, but I just embrace it."

Ekeler's also focused on getting better after a productive rookie season with the Chargers.

Signed as an undrafted rookie last season, Ekeler totaled 260 rushing yards, 279 receiving yards and five total touchdowns in his first season as a pro.

"I feel like it was definitely a learning season for me as far as adjusting to the game in general," Ekeler said. "It's the same game, but it's different as far as players and scheme. And I think this was an adjustment year for me as far as getting a feel for it, but still being able to play."

Ekeler suffered a broken hand at the end of the season but played through the injury. Now that his hand has healed, Ekeler's going through a daily workout regimen at Western State Colorado as he attends school in preparation of the beginning of offseason work.

"I had an OK season in my mind," Ekeler said. "I didn't do anything crazy, but I definitely feel like my next season is going to be better because I know what I need to work on, and that's something I didn't know going in."