Strength in toughest battle
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many in the Mountain State know the legend of Willie Akers.
The Mullens native was a key teammate on the terrific WVU basketball teams during the Jerry West era. He's one of West's very best friends. After playing professionally for the ABA's Cleveland Pipers, Akers coached Logan High to four Class AAA titles over a 20-year span. He went into WVU's Hall of Fame in 1991. Of late, he's been operating Plaza Lanes bowling alley in Logan.
But what many in the Mountain State might not know is the legend is trying to defeat his toughest opponent ever: C-6 quadriplegia.
"I'm doing real well," Akers said from Atlanta on Tuesday. "I'm getting up and standing. I'm doing a lot of good things."
That, however, was the extent of the interview. He was off to five hours of therapy at Shepherd Center, a private non-profit hospital that specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation.
His wife, Linda, filled in the rest of the details. They're details that outline tragedy to one of the state's most beloved sports figures ever.
You might be aware he took a fall at the Civic Center, broke his nose and had a cervical fracture. You might even know he was in critical condition for a while at Charleston Area Medical Center.
The rest of the story, though, is one of heartbreak sprinkled with a dash of hope.
Akers was at Charleston's Civic Center around 10 a.m. on Feb. 13. Logan Middle School's team had just finished winning an unscheduled game.
Afterward, Akers congratulated his grandson, Will, then, according to the legend's wife, tripped on the edge of the court and pitched forward face-first. The grandson, an eighth-grade starter, watched in horror.
"Willie broke his C-6 vertebrae," Linda Akers said. "He had stenosis already compromising his spinal cord ... it was a whiplash thing. The doctors had to insert rods from C-3 to C-7 [vertebrae] to stabilize his neck. He was on a ventilator for a week.
"It was a scary time."
And the prognosis wasn't good. Akers is experiencing paralysis in all four limbs. C-6 quadriplegia patients, however, do experience some movement and can recover wrist recovery and perform tasks like upper- and lower-body dressing without assistance.
"His attitude is so good," Linda Akers said. "Sometimes I think he keeps me going more times than I keep him going."
She said a man, coincidentally named Will, who has similar injuries is a friend to Akers in the hospital gym.
"One day [Will] looked around," Linda said, "and told everyone, 'Hey! [Willie] is the oldest one here and doing better than any of us!' I think his coaching and athleticism helps."
It's a difficult time, though, for the Akers family.
"When he got here [to Atlanta] he wasn't even able to swallow pills," Linda said. "Now he can. His left arm is working. He's a lefty, so he's able to feed himself. His left leg has movement. His right side is giving him more problems, but he's getting better every day. They're working on his core strength."
If anything, Akers has strength at his core.
"He might be the greatest Mountaineer ever," said WVU coach Bob Huggins, speaking in a broad sense. "He was a decorated player out of Mullens. He was decorated at WVU. He's one of the state's two or three best coaches ever. And he's been a great supporter of [WVU's] program."
Huggins and close friend Warren Baker are planning to visit Akers this week during the Final Four.
"Huggins sent enough workout gear to last a long time," Linda said. "The people here know Willie is a WVU fan for sure."
Akers spent three weeks at CAMC before flying to Atlanta on March 6. At Shepherd, he's undergoing hours of therapy a day. On April 25, he and his wife will be moved to a connected apartment building, where he'll be considered an outpatient and continue therapy until the end of May or early June.
Akers will then return home to Logan before returning for more therapy all summer.
"The doctors said he's ahead of schedule," Linda said. "He's doing better than they thought. If it continues, he might be able to walk with a cane and brace on his leg. He'll come home in a wheelchair, but we're hopeful."
Akers has a very tough challenge. He's fighting quadriplegia. And his age - he's 75 - is working against him.
Yet he has that core strength. He has that core strength state fans have seen for years. He also has support seemingly from every hill and valley in this state.
"People have been so wonderful with their cards and letters," Linda said. "The hospital workers come every day with an armload of mail and ask if it's his birthday."
That day won't come until July.
But when it does, let's hope the West Virginia legend can again stand tall and blow out every one of those 76 candles.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.