For Akers, walking away was big step

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

May 02, 2007|By MILTON KENT

Save for English teachers and sports fans, people live their lives staying away from dwelling in the subjunctive, the "What ifs," for the decisions greater than "What if I had taken Exit 18 rather than Exit 17 off the Beltway"

It's a decidedly easier task to pull off as you get older and more comfortable in your skin, which makes the peace that former Hereford star Joe Akers has found with walking away from football at the age of 18 all the more remarkable.

"You have to take life as it comes and you really can't look back," said Akers, 20, now a junior and a student assistant coach at Connecticut. "If you feel like you were fair and you did right by yourself and your family and the people around you, I just don't think you can look back and say, `What if?' "

Akers, a three-time all-state and All-Metro lineman, and perhaps the best player to come through the Bulls program, hasn't played a down in anger or anything else in three years. And he won't, because to do so would possibly put his life at risk.

Akers has been diagnosed with congenital cervical stenosis, where the spinal canal in the neck is narrowed. As a result, there is less fluid surrounding the spinal cord to provide cushioning when it takes a hit, which is quite often in football, and especially along the line, where Akers, who was around 300 pounds when he was at Hereford, played.

The problem first manifested itself in Akers in the 2004 Class 2A state championship game against Potomac at M&T Bank Stadium. Late in the third quarter of the Bulls' 19-12 loss, Akers, who played on both sides of the line, sacked Potomac's James Nickens. Akers said his helmeted head hit either the knee of Nickens or of a teammate. He's not sure which, but he knows that for about three seconds, he was "a little fuzzy."

"Being a football player for 14 years, I've had every kind of ailment," Akers said. "I've been knocked around and kicked. I've had a lot of stuff. I've broken finger after finger. This felt like something different. This went through my entire body. Something wasn't right. Something wasn't clicking."

Akers was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, diagnosed with a sprained neck, and sent home that night, returning to school the next school day.

Akers, who committed to UConn before his senior year, enrolled at the Storrs school for the spring semester after graduating early from Hereford, and took part in the Huskies' spring practice, earning a starting spot at center. However, during an August practice, Akers went down again.

This time, Jeff Anderson, Connecticut's director of sports medicine, called for a magnetic resonance imaging exam to be done on Akers. The test discovered the cervical stenosis, and within two days, Anderson was advising Akers not to play football anymore out of concern for the kind of damage that could happen, including paralysis.

"That morning, when I woke up and went to practice and was eating breakfast, if you would have told me, `Joe, in about an hour, you're never going to play football again,' I would have said, `You're nuts,' " Akers said. "I would have said, `What are you talking about? You're crazy.' At the end of that day, I was in a hospital bed, and two days later, they're telling me I can't play football again. It just goes to show you how life changes so quickly."

Akers had a potentially life-altering decision to make a little short of his 19th birthday, something larger than whom to pick up on a blitz or what sneakers to wear with that day's ensemble.

"He could continue to play and maybe nothing would happen," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "But he could play and one shot the next time he puts the pads on and then you're talking catastrophic injury. That's something as a coach and as a parent, I don't know if you can take that kind of risk. And Joe loved football. He lived and died for football. But you've got to look at the big picture."

Akers was helped in his decision by Edsall's declaration that he could keep his scholarship. Granted, Akers' grant doesn't count against the 85-scholarship Division I-A limit, but in an era when the promises of coaches like Nick Saban and Bob Huggins are as secure as dogwood blooms in a thunderstorm, Akers had something football-related he could count on at a time he needed it most.

"If I didn't trust Coach Edsall and that coaching staff and the athletic director and the people that are taking care of me, what's the point of me being here?" Akers said. "People have asked me, `Do you really trust him [Edsall]?' And I felt like I had to."

After taking the fall to think things over, Akers approached Edsall, who kept him on scholarship, with the idea of becoming a student assistant coach. Edsall was immediately amenable to the idea, and put him to work, serving under offensive coordinator Rob Ambrose and offensive line coach Mike Foley.

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