Photo credit: Brevin Townsell/Los Angeles Rams

By Robert Wilson

Clinton High alumnus Cam Akers made a remarkable comeback this season, reportedly the fastest of any pro athlete in history, when he returned in five and half months to play in an NFL game for the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 9 after completely tearing his Achilles tendon last July.

Akers – who will play running back for the Rams against the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s Super Bowl – dealt with a different type of adversity 12 years ago. Akers, then 11 years old, watched his mother, Angela Neal, fight breast cancer.

“It just taught me to never complain,” said Akers in a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Seeing my mom go through breast cancer — she’s a survivor now — but her going through breast cancer taught me there’s not much to complain about in life, seeing her fight and knowing it was for her children. She said that all the time. It made me a fighter.”

Photo Credit: Chris Todd

Akers’ mom should definitely be proud of how he overcame a difficult injury that most athletes take 10 months to a year to recover from. Akers had a productive rookie season in the NFL -he was a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft – highlighted by a 171-yard performance against the New England Patriots. It was the sixth most rushing yards in game last season the fourth most rushing yards by a rookie in Rams’ franchise history. He was gearing up for even better second season when disaster struck. While working out on July 20 before the start of training camp, Akers suffered a completely torn Achilles’ tendon. It required surgery. that required surgery. Remarkably, Akers was placed on the active roster on Christmas Day and played in the final regular season game on Jan. 9. The 5-foot-10, 217-pound Akers gained 55 yards on 17 carries and caught a 40-yard pass in a 34-11 playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Rams coach Sean McVay gave him the game ball, a credit to his Akers’ performance and amazing recovery.

“What Cam did had never been done before,” said Clinton football coach Judd Boswell, who coached Akers. “It speaks to his work ethic and dedication to come back after five and half months with an Achilles tear. The fastest one before Cam was Kobie Bryant (in 2014) and that was nine months so I would say Cam is ultra-competitive to accomplish that.

“His work ethic is the best I’ve ever been around. Cam was the top running back in the nation and never missed a summer or off-season workout. It’s unheard of this day and time to do that, especially being one of the most highly rated recruits. He always came to work to accomplish greatness.”

“There wasn’t any magic trick that I did (on his recovery),” said Akers at a news conference a week ago. “It was challenging and took a lot of hard work. It wasn’t any easy process. I wouldn’t walk like I wanted to, I couldn’t sleep like I wanted to. Going into it, I knew it would take great focus and purpose. I wanted to have the opportunity to help this team make a Super Bowl run. I give credit to God and my hard work. I wanted to deal with this myself. When I had a down day, I could have called my mom and dad, but I didn’t. I wanted to grow as a young man. Not many people would even be dressing out or even be on the sideline. So I just feel blessed and highly favored. It’s a dream come true.”

From left, Cam Akers’ stepdad, Willie Neal, Akers’ mom Angie Neal, Cam Akers, Clinton coach Judd Boswell, Boswell’s wife Kim and Akers’ dad Connie Akers

The odds were against Akers coming back this season. Many NFL players don’t ever return to play, and most of their recovery time is at least 11 months before they return to play in a game.

After Akers suffered his injury, he made a promise to his Ram teammates.

“I remember him telling me, ‘You guys make it to the playoffs and I’ll be back,’ ” Rams quarterback Matt Stafford said to The Associated Press. “I just thought to myself, what a great mindset to have. There’s no chance he’s going to be back helping us out.”

Stafford found out what fans who saw Akers play at Clinton High knew all along. There isn’t much of anything that can stop him.

“Cam was a great athlete from the first time I saw him in the eighth grade,” Boswell said. “We got to witness him grow and get better every year, but we also got to see the reason why he got better every year. It was because Cam outworked everyone every day and never missed a workout. Cam was and still is a great ambassador for hard work. He is a great athlete and even better person, so we are really proud of all he has accomplished in his young career.”

Akers passed and ran for 5,233 yards and 65 touchdowns as a senior at Clinton in 2016 and was named Mississippi Player of the Year and an All-American. He had 13,243 yards and 149 TDs in his high school career. He was rated the No. 1 running back in the country as a senior. Akers played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and won the U.S. Army Player of the Year award.

“I was going into my first spring at Clinton, and I asked Cam’s parents if it was ok if he practiced with us that spring. He was still an eighth grader, but I knew he was going to be special,” Boswell said. “He started our first game at quarterback that fall as a 13-year-old ninth grader against Meridian and the rest is history. He threw and ran for about 1,500 yards as a freshman against Class 6A competition and he got better every year. I will put him up against the best in Mississippi. That’s how good Cam is. The cat can play. He can beat you with his legs and his arm. He can run for 250 and pass for 300 before you blink. Not only is Cam a great athlete, but no one will also out work him. And he keeps his nose clean, too.”

Akers burst on the college football season as a freshman and broke the Florida State school record for most rushing yards by a freshman with 1,204 yards, passing Dalvin Cook’s mark. Akers finished fifth in career rushing at Florida State, a school known for producing many NFL running backs. Akers was named second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference in his junior season and decided to enter the NFL Draft.

Photo credit: FSU Sports/Mitch White

Akers was selected in the second round, the 52nd overall pick, in the 2020 NFL Draft. He scored his first NFL touchdown on a 4-yard reception against the Tampa Bay Bucs in Week 11. In addition to his big game against the Patriots – he was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week – Akers gained 131 yards and scored a TD and caught two passes for 45 yards in a 30-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. He gained 90 yards and scored a TD in a 32-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the second round.

After recovering from his Achilles’ injury, Akers has gained 151`yards and caught five passes for 62 yards in three playoff games and has started the last two, wins over Tampa Bay 30-27 and San Francisco 20-17. Akers is expected to share the carries in the Super Bowl with South Panola alumnus Darrell Henderson and former Georgia running back Sony Michel. Henderson is expected to play after missing several games with a knee injury. Henderson and Michel have shared carries most of the season while Akers was out. This would be the first time all three would be available this season.

“There are not enough words to say what Cam did (coming back from his injury). It’s a huge credit to him and his work ethic,” said Rams assistant head coach and running backs coach Thomas Brown in a news conference last week. “I’m an old dude and I tore my Achilles last year, so I know about that injury and Cam came back a lot quicker than I did. He is more explosive now than he was before. The sky is the limit for Cam’s growth potential. One of the things I loved about Cam in the draft was his upside – his creativity in the running game, his ability to break tackles and affect the game in multiple ways. I look forward to him having a good day Sunday.”

Thomas, the other coaches and the Rams and many Mississippians will be hoping Akers has a big day.