KAPOLEI, Hawaii - During his 12 seasons as the Eagles' placekicker, David Akers has been a frequent, if not weekly, visitor to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and he has learned one truth. As a parent, the last place you ever want to be with your child is the oncology floor.
The cancer-stricken children there are like "warriors," Akers said. The parents, stronger than he could ever be.
Yet on the Friday before the Eagles faced Green Bay in the playoffs three weeks ago, Akers was at Children's with his 6-year-old daughter, Halley, snaking through a course of tests that led them, unexpectedly, to the oncology floor. The doctors told Akers that a cyst in his daughter's left ovary had to be removed. They did not say the word, but Akers knew the possibility: cancer.
"It was just kind of a smack of reality," Akers said.
There has been a lot of speculation over the last several weeks about what was going on with Akers in the Eagles' 21-16 playoff lost to the Packers, when he uncharacteristically missed two field goals, one from 41 yards and the other from 34. Was he preoccupied with his finances, which took a major hit two years ago when he was defrauded of most of his savings by a Texas investment firm? Was he irritated by what he perceived to be a lowball contract-extension offer from the Eagles? Did he simply misjudge the wind inside the stadium, or was the footing too choppy?
One of the most reliable kickers of the last decade, Akers did not miss from those distances. For him to leave six points on the field and the Eagles to lose by five was more than he, or fans, could bear.
Since that night, the 36-year-old Akers has kept his personal plight within his family, not using it as an excuse for his poor performance. But it is an explanation, and while football is just a game, Halley is real life, and Akers cannot deny that his daughter was on his mind that night. He was stunned and scared and worried.
The next day, as the Eagles players cleaned out their lockers and Andy Reid tried to explain another season's abrupt end, Akers and his wife, Erika, were back at Children's Hospital with Halley, leaning on their faith and their family and thinking nothing about football.
'The stuff that gets you'
Three teams waived Akers before he landed with the Eagles in 1999 and became the franchise leader in points, field goals, and point-after attempts. Only two kickers, Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud, have been to more Pro Bowls than Akers, who will play in his fifth on Sunday in Hawaii.
Akers has a career regular-season field-goal percentage of 81.9, a success rate that climbs to 85.3 percent on attempts inside the 50-yard line. His 31 postseason field goals are the third most in NFL history, and he was the highest-scoring player in the league the last decade.
But Akers has always ranked his priorities in this order: faith, family, football.
That is why, one afternoon last August during the dog days of the Eagles' training camp, Akers slipped home to Medford to see Erika, 38, and their three children, sons Luke, 8, and Sawyer, 2, and Halley.
While giving Halley a bath that night, Akers noticed that his daughter had developed breast tissue. He later joked to Erika that maybe Halley was getting too old for her father to be giving her a bath.
Erika laughed, but later shared the story with a friend, who suggested she call her pediatrician.
On Oct. 5, a week before her sixth birthday, Halley had a scan that showed she had the bone age of a 7-year-old. The next week, Halley had an ultrasound that revealed a cyst in her left ovary.
The doctors told her parents to watch Halley, and after they noticed the breast tissue growing larger, they moved up a second ultrasound appointment to Dec. 28. Two days before the Green Bay game, with Erika home with the boys, Akers was excused from Eagles practice and took Halley to Children's for a two-hour MRI exam, then another ultrasound.
The doctors said that they needed to remove Halley's ovary. If the growth turned out to be malignant, they did not want the malignancy to spill into her nearby organs or tissue. They told Akers to report back on Monday to discuss surgical options, including whether to also remove the right ovary, which was swollen.
"They used the word tumor or cyst or growth," Akers said. "And you're like, 'OK, what does that mean?' Cancer is what that means."
Akers disintegrated over the news.
"You just think about your little girl," Akers said. "I think for me as a father it was harder than for her mother, because you think of her as 'Daddy's little girl.' "
"Except I know what it's like," Erika said. "When she had her first ultrasound done, I said, 'You were in there when we had this with Sawyer [when Erika was pregnant]. Someday Mommy will be in here with you one day when you hopefully have your baby.' "
Said Akers: "That's the stuff that gets you."
Big misses, hard hits
The Eagles were favored against Green Bay, but not by much. They were at home as the No. 3 seed but had lost their last two regular-season games, to Minnesota and Dallas. Compared to the streaking Packers, the Eagles had no momentum.
According to Erika, Akers was not himself at Lincoln Financial Field. From her seat in the stands, she could see it on his face.
"I could tell he was there doing his job," Erika said. "But he wasn't there."
Akers' first miss came on the Eagles' opening drive, when the tricky wind pushed his 41-yard attempt wide right, denying the Eagles a 3-0 lead. The second miss came early in the fourth quarter, in the opposite end zone. Akers slipped, and pushed a 34-yard attempt wide right that would have pulled the Eagles within 21-13 with plenty of time to play.
After the game, Andy Reid uncharacteristically singled out Akers, saying, "We can all count. Those points would have helped."
Knowing that Reid was aware of Halley's condition, Akers was deeply hurt by those comments.
In the locker room after the game, Akers, who will become a free agent March 4, spoke with finality about his years in Philadelphia. He says now that, despite turning down a contract extension, he will be disappointed if his Eagles career ended against the Packers, although he expects that it did.
"In this position, no matter what, you have to be able to put [your personal life] aside for those few hours and go do your job," Akers said. "There are so many people depending on you, other players who have put everything in, the coaches, the fans. . . .
"I feel like I can play through anything, but I didn't play well enough, so maybe that had something to do with it."
The next day at Children's, the doctors delivered the difficult news. Halley had a rare growth on the spectrum of a juvenile granuloma cell tumor that needed to be removed. Halley's breasts had become enlarged because the tumor was causing the ovary to pump estrogen into her body.
Monday afternoon, Akers returned to a deserted NovaCare Complex and packed his belongings. He slid his nameplate into a bag and left for what he could only think would be the last time.
The Akerses spent that night at the house of their pastor, John Wegner, and decided to go ahead with the surgery. The doctors had discussed removing Halley's right ovary as well, but the Akers declined.
"Obviously, the No. 1 thing with us was her safety," Akers said. "No. 2, which was right there close to it, was her fertility."
Said Erika: "The decision was made to take the entire ovary, which was sad."
Bright little star, and hope
On Friday at the lush JW Marriott Ihilani hotel, the Akers children caught passes from their grandmother under the warm, Hawaiian sun as the NFC Pro Bowl team practiced on a nearby field. The children were laughing and running, Halley's blond curls falling into her eyes as she wrestled the football away from her big brother.
At one point, Halley, wearing a purple Hello Kitty T-shirt and pink shorts, slipped on the grass, with Luke falling on top of her.
"Halley," Erika shouted. "Be careful."
It has been a little more than two weeks since Halley had her ovary removed. The tumor was malignant, but early tests have shown that the doctors got all of it. Halley bounced back from surgery and left the hospital the next day, happy and unaffected by the stitches under her skin.
She will have to have blood tests every month for the next year, then more tests sporadically as she gets older. She also will have periodic ultrasounds the rest of her youth, and even if she is fortunate enough to remain cancer-free, eventually she likely will need to have her right ovary removed - her parents hope only after Halley has had her own children.
Although the tears finally have stopped flowing from Akers' eyes - Erika says she still has not allowed herself to cry - he still wears the blue hospital bracelet from the hospital on his left wrist; Halley has hers on her left ankle. And Halley still is sleeping in her parents' bed.
They have been through strife before. In 2004, when Luke was 2, he awoke Christmas morning with the chills and a puffy spot under his eye. After two trips to a neighborhood hospital, Luke awoke the next morning with his eye nearly swollen shut. Doctors at Children's diagnosed cellulitis around his eyes and a MRSA staph infection. After a week with IVs in his arms, Luke made a full recovery.
In 2009, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Triton Financial, the investment company that held most of the Akers' savings, for defrauding its investors. The firm agreed to go into receivership, and the Akers' savings were wiped out.
"I really don't care about the money," Akers said.
But he would like to keep playing football, to help build his family's nest egg back up. If it is with the Eagles, great, but the Akerses are bracing for their first move in 12 years.
They feel confident Halley will make a full recovery, too, but her path will be never-ending. They will have genetic testing done on the boys to make sure there are no further issues. That is part of the reason Eagles special-teams coach Bobby April called Akers on Friday afternoon, just to check in again.
"I think a lot of it is the unknown for us, and still not knowing, still kind of holding on," Akers said. "You just don't think this is going to happen to your kid."
"He still can't even say it," Erika said.
"Cancer," she said.
After Pro Bowl practice, as Akers was signing something for a Make-A-Wish child in attendance, Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher walked up to Halley, who was sitting in a stroller next to her father. Fletcher asked Halley if he could sign something for her.
"I said, 'She's not a kid with a Make-A-Wish,' " Akers said.
"And I was just like, 'Yeah, she's not,' " Erika said. "But she's not. She's not. She's 6 years old, and she's a cancer survivor."
Contact staff writer Ashley Fox