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Mar5ThuWhen David Akers' daughter was diagnosed with a tumour, the NFL star's faith was tested as never before. March 5, 2015 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
During his 12 years as placekicker for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, David Akers made time to regularly visit the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, to brighten the lives of the sad and the suffering.
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“I didn't advertise it, but I had been going weekly to spend hours with those kids,” he remembers. “The oncology floor was my second home.”
But he was totally unprepared to visit the oncology floor as a parent instead of a football star.
A Family Crisis
“2010 was a very challenging time for me,” David comments. “I was with the Eagles in training camp, and one evening I was home giving my daughter, Halley, a bath. She was only five, but I saw what looked like breast tissue developing. My wife mentioned it to a friend who said we should get her checked out.”
It appeared that Halley's ovaries were producing hormones. A rollercoaster of tests showed nothing out of the ordinary.
“Eventually, Halley had an MRI, after which the radiologist said that something was there, but it wasn't cancer,” David recalls. “However, the endocrinologist then sent us to oncology, where we were told there was a tumour on her ovary that must be removed.
“I was so unprepared for that news,” he continues. “The specialist was suddenly a serious doctor, and wasn't treating me like the Eagles' David Akers who was there to cheer up other kids. It was such a weird feeling to know these people on a personal level and yet be treated like a parent, like we were meeting for the first time.”
Hero to Zero
It was January 2011. The Eagles were into the playoffs and there was no backup: David had to play the day before his only daughter's scheduled surgery.
“I am a man of faith and I completely realize that I can't control a lot of things in life,” he reflects, “but I can tell you this crisis brought me to my knees. I had survived huge professional and financial losses, but this health issue was tough.”
David was definitely in no place mentally to play at his best in a “win or go home” game. The year before he had lost $3.7 million in a Ponzi scheme and his contract with the Eagles was now up. At a time when medical expenses were mounting, his family's financial future was precarious.
“In that game, I missed two field goals I should have had no problem with,” he recounts. “I could feel the weight of everything come down on me. We lost by five points, so had those two three-pointer kicks been good, we could have won by one.”
It takes more than one player to lose a game but nonetheless David went from kicker to whipping boy. The fans booed him, the commentators criticized him and his own coach threw him under the bus.
“That was the last time I wore an Eagles jersey,” he comments. “I played more games in that jersey than anyone else in the organization. I hated that after a wonderful experience in Philadelphia I had to end my career with them that way.”
Valley of Darkness
The next morning, the Akers were at the children's hospital.
“It had always brought me such joy to visit kids in the hospital,” David says. “When we brought my daughter in, she stayed the night in the same wing on the same floor I had last visited, but now my role had changed.”
Although the tumour was malignant, the doctors thought they had removed all of it, but it would be months before they'd know for sure. Then in April, the Eagles drafted kicker Alex Henery, and David found out he'd been axed when 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,” wrote ESPN's Rick Reilly.
“Many Bible verses such as James 1:2 state, 'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials,' ” David says. “The reality was it was very difficult for me to find joy at that time, even though I have always been very public about my faith.”
David grew to understand first-hand that, just as all Christians are a part of a community of faith, they are there for one another. As well, his wife, Erika, family and friends helped him along through that dark valley.
“Usually I am the provider and I think nothing's going to stop me from keeping things running,” he comments. “But at that point, my Erika was the one there for me. She had to pick me up and carry me for a while.”
David went on to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, but even better news than that was the doctor telling him in the summer that Halley was 100-percent cancer-free. He played two years in San Francisco and then went to the Detroit Lions. During his year in Detroit, he also became an ordained minister. Now, at the age of 40, he runs David Akers Ministries.
“I use my platform first and foremost to preach to myself that God's ways are not our ways,” he says. “I speak quite a bit on adversity and I say we are always winning, even when it looks to the rest of the world that we are losing. God has promised He will never leave us or forsake us, and this world is only temporary.”
He now challenges those in both the Christian and corporate world to put their faith into action and serve others.
“The Bible says to whom much is given, much is required,” he says. “I believe God allowed me to play in the NFL for a reason, and that reason is to serve the community and try to glorify God with the gifts that He has given me.”
(Photos: Courtesy of David Akers)