Upright guy: Lexington native Akers soars with Eagles thanks to support system

Thanksgiving isn't just another holiday for Lexington native David Akers.

A three-time Pro Bowl selection, he is the leading scorer in Philadelphia Eagles history. He could reach 1,000 career points — he's at 992 — Thanksgiving night, when the Eagles play host to Arizona.

Akers gives thanks for all that he is, and all who have helped him along the way.

He learned from Roy Walton, his coach at Tates Creek High School, that there are no "self-made" people.

"Nobody gets to where they are by themselves," Akers said.

His parents, Jon and Lyn, coaches, teammates and friends — Akers gives thanks for all who have helped him on his life journey.

In his 10th season with the Eagles, he is the NFL team's longest-tenured place-kicker ever, and is tied with quarterback Donovan McNabb and Flyers winger Simon Gagne for third-longest current run in Philadelphia pro sports.

Sometimes, Akers says, it all seems surreal.

Kicking Creeker

Before he was kicking footballs, Akers booted soccer balls for Tates Creek.

"I remember he had a powerful left foot," said Gary Mayrwieser, the now-retired coach who made the Creekers a state soccer power. "He had the hardest shot of any soccer player we ever had."

Akers played midfield for the Commodores.

His sophomore season, during a pickup football game, he kicked a field goal of about 45 yards. One of the players that day, Todd Bunnell, relayed news of the kick to his father — Tates Creek football assistant coach Dave Bunnell.

Soon, with the blessings of Mayrwieser and Walton, Akers was splitting time between soccer pitch and gridiron.

"His mother and father deserve all the credit (for the success) that young man's had," Walton said. "He used to go out there and kick extra points and field goals, and his dad would hold 'em and his mother would run the ball down and throw it back. Sometimes she'd have to throw it two or three times to get it back to him. How many parents do you think are going to do that?"

Akers' kicks were long and accurate. But good enough to foretell NFL potential?

"There's a lot more than just looking at raw talent at a high school level," said Dave Bunnell, who also coached Akers on the swim team. "They've got to go on to do something to put themselves to that level. But, raw talent, you could tell. I'd say that better than 80 percent of his kickoffs would go in the end zone. And that's a real, real positive to make somebody start from the 20-yard line every time."

Akers' first field goal, a 25-yarder with 2:52 left, gave Tates Creek a 3-0 victory over Shelby County in 1991. "Left hash," Akers will tell you.

What he remembers most, though, are the lessons learned under Walton.

"He was in-your-face, grabbing your face mask, pointing," Akers said. "He held you accountable. And that means a lot in today's society, where I think a lot of people aren't held accountable."

Cards and Cats

Akers had hoped to play college ball for Kentucky. Instead, his scholarship offer came from Coach Howard Schnellenberger of Louisville.

"(UK) wanted you to do the whole walk-on thing and earn it," Akers said. "I understand that. Yeah, I was bitter at the time. How are you not a Cats fan, growing up five minutes from the stadium? But the reality is it's more important to get your education, and getting that opportunity from Louisville was a life-changing event for me."

Thanks to Schnellenberger, Akers' tuition was paid.

Thanks to then-Kentucky coach Bill Curry, he continued to learn and mature.

In his first U of L vs. UK game, Akers missed a pair of field goals in a 20-14 loss.

"And I get a handwritten letter from Bill Curry, talking about 'you're going to have the chance to make a lot more kicks in your career. You are an incredible young man' type-of-deal," Akers said. "'Just keep your head up.' To this day, I remember it very vividly — a head coach that just won a game, to spend his time to call out to an opponent's kicker and put the game aside and put the reality and the human side of it at the forefront. I thought that was just amazing."

Over four seasons with the Cardinals, Akers scored 216 points, then ranking second on the school's all-time list.

A teacher and a waiter

Fresh out of U of L, Akers got a look from the Carolina Panthers for the 1997 season.

"Lefty, just like myself," Akers said of Panthers incumbent John Kasay. "I learned so much about technique and getting through the ball and the explanation of how to do it, and watching him do it. I got the film on him and watched over and over how he was able to be so consistent. I went home and studied it and just practiced and practiced and practiced and, really, became a little Kasay."

Cut by the Panthers, Akers returned to Louisville as a permanent substitute teacher at Westport Middle School. There he coached basketball and taught sixth-grade science. His students included Keenan Burton, now of the St. Louis Rams.

After about a semester and a half, the Falcons signed Akers. So he and wife Erika relocated to Atlanta.

"Went down there and it looked like there was a chance to be on the practice squad. But they have to cut you to bring you back, so then the Redskins asked me to be on their practice squad."

Three games into the season, Akers was activated for a game against Seattle.

The Seahawks ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Akers later missed field goals from 48 and 49 yards. A day later, he was released.

Akers headed to Atlanta, where Erika had remained.

"I didn't have my certification down there to be a substitute teacher," he said. "I went up and started waiting tables at a steakhouse."

Akers was ready to forget football.

But Erika recalled what former UK and Cincinnati Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey had told Akers coming out of college: It can take three or four years for a kicker to win an NFL job. Erika cashed some bonds that her grandparents had given her at birth, paying the way for David to get one-on-one training in Florida.

Late in 1998, he signed with the Eagles, who sent him to play in NFL Europe. He kicked well enough in Berlin to get a closer look in training camp.

He began the 1999 season kicking off for the Eagles and designated as the "long" field-goal kicker. Veteran Norm Johnson handled the shorter kicks. In 2000, Akers became the full-time kicker.

A kicker with causes

Another bit of Pelfrey advice for Akers concerned Kicks for Kids, Pelfrey's way of making charitable contributions for every point he scored with the Bengals.

Akers has two programs under the Kids umbrella.

"David's Locker" assists families during stays at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). That could mean a wheelchair, a plane ticket for family needing to visit, a computer or other such assistance. A board of directors considers each request.

Akers also lends support to CHOP's Little Rock Resource Center for visually and hearing impaired.

"I didn't end up teaching. I wasn't in the armed services or a fireman or policeman or anything like that," Akers said. "So I feel like I've been given this platform by God to do something for a positive. All these people didn't help me to get here to do nothing, in my opinion."

A kick and a kiss

Akers cannot say enough about those who have helped him along the way.

He recalls his long snapper, Mike Bartram, joining him in the emergency room on Christmas night of 2004, when Akers' oldest child, Luke, fell ill.

He mentions all the snappers and holders he's worked with over the years. He talks about Eagles Coach Andy Reid and the fans who support him. He also ticks off names of his high school coaches. And teachers, one of whom is older brother Rob, now principal at Woodford County High School.

Besides Luke, now 61/2, the family includes Halley, 4, and Sawyer, 71/2 months.

Akers is buoyed by all, but especially by Erika, his wife of 11 years.

David, the Lexingtonian who went to college in Louisville, met a Louisville high-schooler (Sacred Heart) who went to college in Lexington (UK), while on spring break in 1994 at Panama City, Fla.

While David was playing in NFL Europe, Erika stayed home. So David came up with a celebration routine that he uses to this day.

Knowing that Erika would be watching him on TV, "when I would kick a field goal, I would bring up my ring to my face mask, as if I was kissing it. She knew that was kind of a little signal for her."

He also points his fingers skyward: "I still believe that God's given me an opportunity to play in this league. For that reason, I just give thanks to Him for that."

Lessons learned

Just as with Kasay at Carolina, Akers paid attention in other NFL camps.

At Atlanta, he scrutinized how veteran Morten Andersen prepared in the off-season.

"That was a really cool learning tool," Akers said. "He used to call me 'Q Boy' — Question Boy — because I would ask him all kinds of questions about the game, about himself."

With the Eagles, Akers saw how punter/holder Sean Landeta "made himself marketable off the field as a kicker."

Johnson, a model of composure under pressure, encouraged Akers to pursue martial arts. Akers practices Brazilian jujitsu to work his hips, abdominals and cardio fitness; Shaolin kempo to strengthen his legs and aid with range of motion.

Akers' first NFL field goal, at Miami, was a 53-yarder. His career long, 57 yards against New England, came in 2002.

"Indoors the other day I just had a 55 with probably 7 to spare. I hit 60 in practice and, in training camp, I think 63 or 64," Akers said. "I can hit the long kicks. It's just a matter of can you do it in the game."

David vs. Goliaths

At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, hairline receding, one might think Akers fits the stereotype of a kicker: good leg, but no other football talent.

Think again.

"I've always felt that I was a linebacker stuck in a kicker's body," Akers said. "I've always liked the contact."

He has 32 NFL tackles, including one this year.

"I never wanted to be one of those guys that I call 'olé-ing' — you see them watch the bull like a matador. 'Whoa, there you go!'" Akers said. "I always felt like I was going to try to hit this guy."

Even in high school, he loved contact.

"He wasn't afraid to stick his nose in there at all," said Dave Bunnell, now athletic director at Lexington Catholic. "Ninety-nine percent of the time a kicker is your last defense on kickoffs. He's the safety. And there was a lot of times when David saved people from getting a touchdown."

Akers has pulled off three fake field goals with the Eagles. His only pass came in 2006, picking up 11 yards against Green Bay. He has run twice, gaining 25 yards.

The first run came in 2000 against Arizona, off an over-the-shoulder, no-look lateral from his holder, Koy Detmer. Holder and kicker dreamed up the play in practice.

"We would have scored but, believe it or not, Pat Tillman lined up in a place that he had never lined up before ... and actually caught me after 15 yards," Akers said. "Then we ran one (in 2001) against the Cowboys and I made the first down. ... Blue-collar fans kind of liked that — I dove for extra yardage."

Not as easy as it looks

Akers has 95 points this season. He is 22-for-26 on field goals, making his last 12 in a row. And he is perfect through 29 extra-point attempts.

Kick a ball. Easy way to make a living, right?

"Most fans don't really realize how intricate and how technical the field-goal operation is, starting with the snapper to how tough it is for the linemen," said Akers, whose contract with the Eagles runs through 2010 and pays him $1.1 million this season. "They call it 'the toughest two in football' — the toughest two seconds. And for the holder to get everything — the lean, the spot, the laces around, everything you need to do. And we get the ball off between 1.25 and 1.35 (seconds). That's really getting a lot done in a short amount of time."

Not to mention the pressure of kicking far enough and accurately enough while under a public microscope.

"I missed a 50 (-yarder) against the Redskins this year, and when you hear 60,000 people boo it's not the most pleasant feeling," Akers said.

He avoids reading newspaper coverage of the Eagles and doesn't tune in to local TV sports or talk radio. He stays positive and confident, focused on honing his game.

He says he avoids getting too high in good times, too low in bad times. Another lesson taught by Walton.

With his 34th birthday coming Dec. 9, Akers knows there will come a day when someone will take his job.

"I don't want to be a journeyman, where my kids are affected," he said. "I don't want them to be here one month and, six months later, we're about to go somewhere else. I feel blessed to be able to play this long. So, if I'm supposed to be done, so be it."

Then he'll be right back where he was when he graduated from Louisville. Back in the real world.

And he will be thankful.