A current television commercial for Army recruiting features "overachievers" of the National Football League, such as Bobby Johnson of the New York Giants, Bill Ring of the San Francisco 49ers and Carl Ekern of the Rams.
"I'd forgotten about that," Ekern said, fidgeting at his sudden notoriety. "Now that they've caught me in that, there's no way I can get out of it."
Ekern plays inside linebacker--not that he'd ever bring it up himself. The Rams' other inside linebacker, Jim Collins, is considered under-rated for missing the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. Ekern is happy that he is hardly rated at all, over or under.
For Ekern, coaches and publicists reserve terms like "dependable," with "field intellect." He also calls the defensive signals, a duty that earns him the rather dry accolade of "efficient manager" of the defense.
He rebels at any attempt to make him sound interesting. He doesn't even like to be regarded as an overachiever, a term which suggests an athlete of limited gifts playing over his head, even if his success might inspire others.
"You wanna hear all that bull?" Ekern asked. "I mean, there are certain things you have to do to get yourself ready to play each week and each year and every day. So I do those things, and most everybody does. I just don't see that there's any big deal."
But the cover of Carl Frederick Ekern is blown. This season, besides managing the Rams' fifth-ranked defense with his usual efficiency, he intercepted two passes, doubling his career total. He returned one against Tampa for 33 yards and a touchdown. He contributed several other big plays, such as meeting Kenny King in mid-air to stop the Raiders' final scoring bid in last Monday night's 16-6 loss.
Ekern, 31, is being noticed. Fritz Shurmur, the Rams' defensive coordinator, calls him the "ultimate achiever" and "a coach on the field."
The Rams' other three linebackers were drafted out of major college football programs on the first or second rounds. Ekern, the PCAA Player of the Year in 1975, was drafted fifth out of San Jose State.
"In terms of overall athletic ability--size, speed and all that--he's average, at best," Shurmur said. "But in terms of production, he's in the top 10% of guys who play that position in this league."
But Ekern remains publicity shy, Shurmur figures, because "he is such a team-oriented guy that he hates for that focus to fall on him individually."
Ekern agreed to be interviewed. So far, so good.
"I don't really care to see an article done on me at this point," he said, settling into a seat under mild protest.
But within the next few minutes he revealed a clear understanding of his role in the game. It starts when the sideline signals in the defensive formation, and Ekern takes it from there.
"We try to keep it as uncomplicated as we can," he said. "The changes we make are predicated on what I see . . . what formations."
The game has become a contest of matchups, each side trying to gain an advantage of speed over muscle, muscle over speed.
Ekern: "The defensive coaches are aware of the (offensive) substitutions. They wait before they send something in. I've got adjustments and things to call, depending on what I see the offense doing. That's what we work on during the week and watch films for. That's where the game plans come from.
"As soon as we know the call and we know who's there in the huddle--and I usually talk to (strong safety) Nolan (Cromwell) and (free safety) Johnnie (Johnson) and Jimmy Collins, so they're ready to make the audible, too--we spread it out to both sides so the outside backers and cornerbacks know.
"Your mind's gotta be moving. A lot of the adjustments aren't that hard, but to do it on the run and under fire, that's where it becomes hard.
"We've got names for every formation they come in--'trips' and 'slots' and 'ace' and 'doubles' and 'blizzards'--and then we've also got adjustments depending on if it's a one-back set to the weak side or the strong side. Some teams do become--not predictable--but they have favorite plays that have worked for them in certain situations, and those are the ones you try to take away. You put yourself in the best position to defend those."
A team that likes trick plays can compound the problem. The Rams will be thinking about that when they open the playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys at Anaheim on Saturday.
"You can't sit back and be looking for it all the time because it's just a once-in-a-while deal," Ekern said. "You just have to play regular and know what kind of gimmicks they can do and know when something's fishy. If you've got your normal read and something doesn't fit into it, then you have to figure out what they're trying to do.
"It's easy in hindsight to look at the film and say, 'This is what you should have done,' but stuff is happening fast."
Film study is important so reactions on the field become instinctive. Ekern studies opponents so hard, Shurmur said, "that I don't know if he has time for anything else during the season."