Part of the appeal of professional football is the unforgettable athletes who makes the sport so exciting. The players don’t necessarily have to be a Hall of Famer to become a role model. One example is former Los Angeles Rams linebacker Carl Ekern, who defined what a team player is during his 12 seasons with the Rams.
The Rams drafted Ekern in the fifth round (128th overall) of the 1976 NFL Draft. The San Jose State linebacker possessed a great body frame, standing at 6’3” and weighed about 223 pounds. He had great instincts and a nose for the football. Ekern was a surefire tackler and mastered the fundamentals of the game.
However, Ekern didn’t see much action until 1981, which is to be expected when arriving to a top contending team loaded with talented linebackers. Ekern had the ability to contribute despite having minimal opportunities. It was challenging to find playing time with the likes of Jim Youngblood, Jack Reynolds and Isiah Robertson on the team.
Despite being low on the depth chart, Ekern rotated wherever he was needed and tired out opposing offenses as a result. When some of the veterans moved on, Ekern proved his versatility by either come off the bench or spot starting. The 1982 season is where head coach Ray Malavasi began experimenting with him playing inside linebacker and that was the best fit for him.
Ekern proved to be a student of the game and seemed to improve with age. He entered the 1985 season at the age of 31 and yet he had the best season of his career up to that point. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The defense grew with Ekern leading the way, which helped the Rams secure an 11-5 season.
Ekern’s best season came in 1986, which was the only time he made the Pro Bowl roster. He was a tackling machine that demolished opposing ground games throughout the season. Ekern was part of the reason the Rams were fourth in the league in least points allowed with just 267. He retired two seasons later in 1988, but not before mentoring the younger linebackers. Players like Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher benefited from his knowledge of the game.
Ekern was dedicated to football and would have likely found himself back on a NFL field coaching on the sidelines. Tragically, he never had the opportunity. He died on August 1, 1990 after being involved in a fatal car crash in Ridgecrest, California.
Ekern isn’t a household name, but his memory still lives on through former coaches, players and Rams fans. “We’re obviously heartbroken by the loss of one of the great Ram players, and one of the good men that I’ve known,” said former Rams head coach John Robinson during press conference after Ekern’s death. He continued his praise for Ekern by saying, “Everyone on this team had a great sense of affection and respect and feeling for Carl. He played this game as hard as anyone as I’ve known. We’re all very sorry.”
Although Ekern is among the departed, the Rams to this day celebrate his memory by awarding current Rams players with the “Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game Award.” This prestigious award is presented to a Rams player that conducts himself with sportsmanship, work ethic and is a team player. That is what defined Ekern’s contribution to football.