Real Toughness

Look for it in the heart of a father, not on Twitter

The big topic of conversation throughout the NFL this past week was toughness. Jay Cutler didn’t have any, and his peers were more than happy to let him know it. Maurice Jones-Drew, Darnell Dockett and Asante Samuel(!)—among others—tweeted their disapproval of Cutler’s knee-induced early exit from the NFC title game, citing their own tough-guy credentials and assuring fans that nothing short of a hollow-tip bullet could force them to leave such a big contest.

While pundits and other athletes debated the wisdom of criticizing a fellow gladiator without full knowledge of his condition (although Cutler’s hang-dog body language didn’t help him), the big story was how the players had pre-empted the traditional news delivery apparatus and had created the story through social media. Cantankerous news types decried the Facebook/Twitter revolution, but it was clear to anybody paying attention that the very nature of the story’s break signaled a disturbance in the journalistic force and could very well lead to further reports from smart-phone happy athletes.

While Cutler was undergoing his public flogging, Eagles kicker David Akers decamped to Hawaii and prepared for his fifth Pro Bowl appearance, still visibly shaken from an ordeal that made Cutler’s knee sprain, which was no doubt painful, seem like a nuisance by comparison. Just a month earlier, as detailed in a top-notch Inquirer article Sunday by Ashley Fox, Akers had learned that his six-year-old daughter, Halley, had cancer and needed surgery to remove an ovary.

It was a gut punch to Akers, who despite his karate-man status and relative tough-guy personality for a kicker, was unprepared to handle the news. Really, who the hell is? You find out that your daughter has the Big C, and you hold it together? Not likely. Any parent knows that a strep throat diagnosis for a child can lead to a sleepless night or two. A cancer verdict brings with it pain and fear that can paralyze mothers and fathers. Even the best care and prognosis for recovery can’t quell the aching uncertainty that will torment them for months and years in their most vulnerable moments.

Akers learned about Halley’s condition two days before he was to kick for the Eagles in their playoff game against the Packers, and his job became almost an afterthought when compared to the absolute terror his family faced. Now, Akers won’t make excuses for the two field goals he missed, even though the 41-yarder was into a capricious wind that transported the football in a direction Akers couldn’t have imagined. He’s a professional and has been around the NFL too long not to understand the league’s bottom-line nature. One could almost hear Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross berating Akers for his inability to close the deal: “Because only one thing counts in this life: Get the ball through the uprights.”

Eagles fans no doubt sympathize with Akers. No matter how hard-boiled and Machiavellian they may be, denizens of the Linc are not heartless, especially for someone who has done as much for the franchise as Akers. Granted, they would have loved to have seen Akers make just one of those two he missed, since that would have meant Michael Vick wouldn’t have had to go down swinging in the game’s dying moments. But after learning Akers’ story, they no doubt have considerable empathy for Akers and understand any lack of focus that may have plagued him during the playoff game. If they don’t, shame on them. You worry about the image of Philadelphians? People who blindly demand perfection from those under the kind of supreme stress brought on by a child’s cancer diagnosis need to learn a little more about the human condition and get ready for their own test, which will most certainly arrive down the road.

The Packers loss may well have been Akers’ final game as an Eagle. That’s how it goes in the NFL. There’s always somebody else out there to do your job. The team is known for trying to low-ball veteran players, and reports are it underwhelmed Akers with a recent contract offer. That’s the business of the game. But if Fox’s account of Andy Reid’s knowledge of the Akers family’s plight is accurate, and he still called out the kicker after the game, then the head coach looks callous and inhumane. Reid has parried questions about his players’ shortcomings for more than a decade, and he could have easily protected his vulnerable player. Instead, he hung the responsibility on Akers, further evidence that he could well be feeling the mounting pressure to win it all. With Donovan McNabb gone, Reid is without a buffer from fans’ ire. It’s, ahem, on him. And he has to do a better job.

In a week where toughness was the refrain, and accusations flew from phone to computer and back, David Akers proved he could stand up to the most ruthless foe out there. He did so with courage and heart and will continue to protect his daughter and fight the uncertainty. Cutler’s knee will get better. So, we pray, will Halley. You want tough? Don’t look for it in tweeted bravado. Look into the heart of a father, and you’ll find all you need.


  • So the Birds are going to franchise Michael Vick and trade Kevin Kolb, eh Adam Shefter? Sounds like a plan. Here’s an idea: If Kolb is in demand, how about getting some defensive help in return? Nahhh. Who needs defense when you can score a bunch of points?
  • For years, Villanova’s backcourt has been its calling card. But in the Wildcats’ recent skid, it’s the guards who have been struggling most. Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes need to get it rolling again. They have six weeks to do that, so don’t hit the panic button yet.
  • Anybody who watched the Sixers’ supreme choke job Friday night had to wonder whether the team is ever going to learn how to close out games. If the opponent was Miami or the Celtics, that would be one thing. But blowing a 21-point lead to the depleted Grizzlies was inexcusable.
  • Hey, Greg Schiano: Free Tom Savage. The quarterback wants to transfer, and he isn’t trying to join a Big East rival. So, why limit his choices? And why are Miami, Florida and Michigan off limits? We hear all the time how institutions care about their athlete-students. Here’s a chance for Schiano and Rutgers to prove it.