When Life Kicks You Down, Kick Back

The business of professional sports is unforgiving. It is a pure meritocracy, with no excuses tolerated for poor performance: You’ve got problems at home? I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t want to hear about it. Leave your personal life at the locker room door and go do your job.

It’s an environment that is ripe for feel-good stories of redemption and triumph. Like this stellar story by ESPN.com writer Rick Reilly about San Francisco 49ers placekicker David Akers.


David Akers had a rough ending to the 2010 season. Professional and personal turnarounds made for a different story in 2011 (photo by Jason O. Watson of US Presswire)

This is the show-stoppingest year for QBs in NFL history, which is how San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers’ story ended up in 4-point font.

Too bad. It would look nice on Paramount Pictures’ summer schedule.

Yes, Akers, 37, had the finest kicking season in NFL history this year, but that’s just the riding-off-into-the-sunset part.

The crying-in-the-shower part was exactly a year ago last week — wild-card weekend — when his Philadelphia Eagles were about to host the Green Bay Packers. The day before the game, doctors found a tumor on the ovary of Akers’ 6-year-old daughter, Halley.

They were still trying to figure out what to do with it Sunday morning when a distraught Akers had to drive to the game to kick inflated pigskins through bars of steel.

Just to add a pint or two of sweat to the gallons Akers was already spilling, there was this: The year before, Akers found out he’d been swindled out of most of his life savings in a Ponzi scheme by Texas investor Kurt Barton, who ended up getting 17 years in prison for it. Akers had to testify against him.

His $3.7 million was gone, though, which meant this playoff game was crucial to the Akers family’s future.

No wonder his brain was a bowl of Jell-O that day.

Akers immediately went out and blew a 41-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter. That was rare. He’d missed only four tries all season. Then he missed a bunny 34-yarder in the fourth. He can usually make those wearing fuzzy slippers. The Eagles lost 21-16.

The fans booed him. Talk radio slaughtered him. And even Eagles coach Andy Reid singled him out, saying, “We can all count. Those points would’ve helped.”

And so all those demons laid down in bed with Akers on that sleepless Sunday night, knowing Halley would go in for surgery in a morning that would reveal the heaviest — or lightest — kind of news.

“He was just so down and worried that night,” remembers Akers’ agent, Jerrold Colton. “He was so, so emotional. But he knew he had to present a strong front for his daughter and his family.”

“My life was kind of a car wreck right then,” Akers says.

So there it was, the trifecta — nearly broke, a sick kid at home and silently dumped by the team he’d given 12 terrific years.

The next morning, at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he asked the surgeon to go out in the hall and pray with him. Akers, devout, had preached for years. They knelt.

The tumor turned out malignant but small enough that the doctors felt like they removed all of it. Trouble was, it would be months before they’d know.

The NFL, though, decides things much faster. The Eagles went out and drafted Nebraska kicker Alex Henery in the fourth round. Akers didn’t even know it until a friend texted him.

So there it was, the trifecta — nearly broke, a sick kid at home and silently dumped by the team he’d given 12 terrific years.

Akers is a guy who’s insecure about his footing in the NFL anyway. He’d been a waiter at a Longhorn Steakhouse in Atlanta, a substitute teacher and a kicker for NFL Europe in Berlin, where he nearly died during a one-month hospital stay for salmonella.

The man who saved him from that life was then-Philadelphia special teams coach John Harbaugh, who called him up for a tryout in 1998. Akers stuck. And he’s been terribly fond of Harbaughs ever since.

No wonder that when John’s brother Jim called in that dark, darker, darkest offseason, offering a 49ers contract, Akers couldn’t pack fast enough. He may have been leaving the Eagles’ ballyhooed Dream Team for the 49ers’ Creamed Team, (6-10 the year before), but he didn’t care.

“God made it abundantly clear where I was supposed to be,” Akers says. “I love the Harbaugh family.”

Dad Jack Harbaugh recruited him 20 years ago at Western Kentucky.

“Out on the field they might be just killing you, calling you names, yelling at you,” Akers says. “But then you go into lunch and they become completely different people. ‘How’s the family, David?’ And you want to go, ‘Wait a minute! You just torched me out there!’ But that’s how it is. Their teams are families.”

That’s almost literally true. Jim has turned the 49ers into a sort of odd family reunion. Kids and families are welcome at Saturday practices. They serve a special meal for the kids. Players wear jeans and sweats on the plane and the team’s signature gas station-attendant blue work shirts during the week, an idea Jim stole from John, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

“They’re always doing that with each other,” Akers said. “I’ve heard Jim say to John, ‘That’s my story! You stole my story!’ And then John will go, ‘That was NOT your story! I stole it from Dad!'”

Akers signed a three-year, $9 million deal with San Francisco, which was a relief, though not as big of a relief as the doctor telling them in the summer that Halley was 100 percent cancer free.

From there, life just started showing up on the end of Akers’ fork. The 49ers’ offense ignited, giving Akers a hotfoot. He set NFL records for FGs in a season (44) and points (166). He was the Associated Press’ first-team All-Pro kicker. He threw his first TD pass. The 49ers went 13-3. The Eagles: 8-8.

And when Akers’ new team played Akers’ old team? Philly’s rookie kicker missed field goals of 39 and 33 yards and the 49ers won 24-23, with Akers kicking the winning PAT.

You think Andy Reid counted on that?

Click here to view all my posts about Rick Reilly.


Phil is the author of Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, a comprehensive guide to living a spiritual life. Who will benefit from reading it?

Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to start one
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SiSe_fullcover_final.inddPhil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent people he interviewed, including Joan Borysenko, Deepak Chopra, geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford, Dr. Larry Dossey, Wayne Dyer, Dan Millman, Caroline Myss, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Bernie Siegel, James Van Praagh, singer Billy Vera, Doreen Virtue, Neale Donald Walsch, and bassist Victor Wooten.

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