David Akers loyal to Eagles, Philly, in sickness and in health

Four-time Pro Bowler David Akers: 'It's been a wonderful ride' with the Eagles.
Four-time Pro Bowler David Akers: 'It's been a wonderful ride' with the Eagles.
Posted: August 19, 2010

A QUARANTINE in Germany is a funny place to end a football career.

And believe it, David Akers and football were finished.

In his only NFL game in 1998, playing for the Redskins, he watched Seattle's Steve Broussard take his opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Lining up field goals from 9 yards out instead of 8, like he did in college, he had missed both attempts from 48 and 49 yards. His only onside kick gave the Seahawks great field position.

"One of the old veteran guys said, 'They called him the Babe Ruth of kicking, and it looks like he struck out,' " Akers recalled recently.

Three months after his forgettable debut, having been waived by his third NFL team, Akers was picked up by the Eagles. That was on Jan. 11, 1999, the same day Andy Reid was hired as head coach. The Eagles allocated Akers to NFL Europe and soon after, he got sick, stuck in a closet-sized hospital room more than 4,000 miles away from his wife.

What he learned that week changed him forever, a time to reprioritize his life and give him strength to endure some of the cruelest curveballs yet to be thrown his way. He left Berlin a changed man.

He has been in Philadelphia since. Entering his 12th season, he is the longest-tenured professional athlete in the city, an unexpected designation for a kicker.

Change is all around the Eagles, and Akers is in the final year of his contract with an uncertain future, and mired in a potential financial jam from investments in a company now being sued by the federal government.

"Philadelphia has been a blessing to me," Akers said. "It's been a wonderful ride. Hopefully it'll continue past this season, but if it doesn't I just want to thank everybody for the ride we had and the gratitude will always be there. It's a humbling thing to think back about things you've been able to accomplish in the scheme of life."

When the Eagles picked up Akers, it was on the condition he go overseas to play for the Berlin Thunder, of NFL Europe. He would kick field goals from 33 yards and beyond - a native player kicked everything inside 33 yards and extra points.

Erika Akers, married for less than 2 years, was watching a live stream of her husband's second-to-last game of the season on a computer in their Atlanta home when she heard the announcers say Akers was not at the game. A phone call explaining why was coming soon, she thought.

Awake at 3:30 the next morning to get ready for work at Lucent Technologies, Erica Akers received a phone call from the equipment manager, who told her that David's kidneys were hurting, he was shaking with a 105-degree fever and his living quarters were a one-window room that included a bucket placed under a wheelchair for a toilet.

Salmonella from undercooked chicken he ate the night before the game required Akers to be rushed to the hospital, where doctors struggled to regulate his blood pressure.

"Other than my child in [Children's Hospital] for a week, that was worst thing we've ever been through," Erika said. "It was awful."

She learned all the doctors and nurses only spoke German or Russian. Her husband's only communication was through an Englishman he met in the emergency room. With hardly a clue what was going on, Akers took to an activity he always hated: reading.

Having never read a novel he didn't have to, Akers read three books in the Christian-based series "Left Behind," a fiction-based account of the rapture.

"I spent a lot of time there reflecting on what's important," Akers said. "I just wanted to get home. I didn't care if I played football anymore. I had been away from her so much of our first year of marriage. It didn't seem like it was really worth it."

Before he left the hospital, Akers ripped out a sheet of a brownish memo pad and penned a handwritten letter to Erika.

When her husband arrived at the airport, she hardly recognized him. He had lost 30 pounds in the first 2 days of his weeklong hospital stay. He soon slipped her the letter.

"When you feel at death's door, you can put some great emotions down," Erika said. "I'll never share it with anybody."

After a week of being quarantined in Berlin, where his biggest meal was baby food applesauce, Akers needed to gain weight.

He was eager for success in his fourth NFL opportunity, but was never physically right that first training camp with the Eagles in 1999, and the salmonella left him worried about what he ate.

Weeks after his scare in Berlin, he ordered chicken and cut into it only to see pink. He did not eat it.

"Now he teases me because it's so dry," Erika said. "I overcook everything because I'm so scared. You have to be tough to eat food in my house."

That year, the Eagles brought in Norm Johnson but gave Akers the chance to handle kickoffs and long field goals. The team struggled, and after an early season game against Chicago, Andy Reid faced questions about why he kept another kicker rather than use the roster spot for a positional need.

The following week against Miami with Johnson sidelined, Akers nailed a 53-yard field goal - the first field goal of his NFL career - then booted the ensuing kickoff 3 yards out of the end zone.

"That was kind of the turning process," Akers said.

Akers has missed just four games since, when he tore his hamstring in 2005. He has come a long way from having to work as a middle school substitute teacher in Louisville or a waiter at a Longhorn Steakhouse outside of Atlanta, jobs he held while in between NFL opportunities.

Erika attributes the Eagles' decision to keep both Akers and Johnson to then special teams coach John Harbaugh.

"It's amazing," Erika said. "Everybody owes it to Harbaugh . . . It's a miracle for us. I don't know if they would do it now."

David Akers, now 35, has kicked in a Super Bowl, been named to the NFL's All-Decade Team and made four Pro Bowls, but he never felt cooler than when he was holding onto his grandfather's white belt on motorcycle rides.

One day, he and his grandfather repaired a bicycle - Akers swears his grandfather broke things on purpose just to fix them - that needed a new brake cable. Rather than go out and buy a new housing, his grandfather wanted to use the same housing and insert a new cable.

When the two finished 4 hours later, he asked David what he thought.

"Well, listen," the young Akers said. "I want a good job that pays a good amount of money, so I don't got to sit here for 4 hours working on a brake cable. I can just go out and buy a new one."

An NFL career has afforded him that luxury. Akers signed a 5-year extension with the Eagles in 2005 that made him the league's highest-paid kicker at the time. He is due to make $1.65 million this season in the final year of his contract.

Akers has played in 172 games with the Eagles; safety Quintin Mikell is next with 108. He has been with the Eagles since 1999, 4 years more than Mikell and center Jamaal Jackson, who were signed as rookie free agents in 2003. The three are the only players remaining from the Eagles' Super Bowl appearance in 2005.

The team is changing around him and the uncertainty is only heightened by the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

"I see a change in the Eagles, too," Erika said. "Seeing Brian [Dawkins] go out that door was a bigger shock than seeing Donovan [McNabb]. Brian Dawkins, to me, he is Philadelphia."

Akers' agent, Jerrold Colton, said there have been some ongoing conversations with the Eagles, but no offer has been made yet.

Akers also finds himself in a financial bind from an association with Triton Financial, an investment firm that was recently sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding investors in a multimillion-dollar insurance scam. Most of Akers' retirement money was invested in Triton.

Two former Eagles teammates - Akers' longtime holder, Koy Detmer, and Jeff Blake - and former NFL quarterbacks Ty Detmer and Chris Weinke were executives with Triton and have been named as defendants in a civil suit against Triton and numerous company executives. Akers said he has not spoken to Koy Detmer in several years, but both he and Erika had nothing but good things to say about him. Detmer could not be reached.

Akers' post-football plans centered around becoming a youth pastor and helping his 8-year-old son Luke pursue his passion for racing. But with uncertain financial times ahead, those plans could change, should he not re-sign with the Eagles.

"If he's not with the Eagles, financially, he's going to have to play," Erika said. "God loves him, they say, as long as he doesn't go to Dallas. If he's lucky enough to have somebody want him to play there, we have to go to Dallas if they want us.

"I sat in that stadium [last week against Jacksonville], I cried, 'Aw, man, I can't imagine. If this is where we're not supposed to be, I get it. This is a business.' If I'm not sitting in a stadium listening to 'Rocky,' I'm going to be really upset."

More often than not, they tell their kids - Luke, 5-year-old Halley and 2 1/2-year-old Sawyer - they probably won't be living in Medford, N.J., next year, just to prepare for the worst.

David shares a unique bond with Luke, because of what happened on Christmas 2004, a little more than a month before the Super Bowl.

Luke, 2 at the time, had a fever opening presents under the tree. His dad had to fly to St. Louis to face the Rams in a meaningless game, homefield throughout the playoffs already wrapped up.

After an initial trip to the doctor, Luke was sent home, thought to just have a virus. Later, his eyes started swelling up, his face and nose became distorted and swollen. Pus foamed from his mouth.

He was diagnosed with cellulitis and a MRSA staph infection. In the hospital, David - refusing to get on a plane to St. Louis and telling teammate Chad Lewis that he was not going to kick with IVs sticking out of his son - took a knee and cried holding Luke.

Luke patted his father on the head, as if to tell him it was going to be OK. David later arrived in St. Louis, a jet waiting for him in case he needed to rush back home.

Luke's scare was the inspiration behind David's Locker, part of his foundation, Kicks for Kids, which benefits area children's hospitals. Akers is dedicated to helping families with sick children by providing money for taxi rides to and from the hospital or a breathing machine so a parent could tend to a child at home rather than in a hospital.

"We're called here to serve," Akers said. "That's my belief. I'm not in Armed Forces. I'm not a policeman, fireman. I'm not even a schoolteacher anymore. But we're called to serve, so we're supposed to help people, no matter who it is."

Two weeks after David and Erika got married in 1997, Akers signed with Carolina.

He was waived, and in early 1998, Erika cashed in a $1,500 savings bond so David could go to Florida to train under kicking guru Doug Blevins. Later that year, Akers was picked up by the Falcons and they moved to Atlanta. Erika said veteran Morten Andersen called him "Q" because he asked so many questions. Then there was his one game in Washington, and his difficult trip to Berlin and that hospital, and finally a home in Philadelphia with the Eagles.

"I didn't come from any silver spoon," said Akers, the son of a principal and guidance counselor. "Everything I achieved was achieved by people helping me, being here for me. Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. I've been able to have two children born in this area, all three raised here. So, Philly's changed my life for a lot of the positives. I've been here one-third of my life. That's a long time.

"I haven't had the opportunity to leave because I've been tied up for years. I would love to end my career here. I want to play until they kick me out of the league. But I don't wanna go anywhere. Sometimes those decisions aren't left up to you." *

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