Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (23) runs during an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. The Rams won 34-11. (Michael Owens via AP)

When Clinton’s Cam Akers dazzled opponents and spectators alike during his high school football career, opposing coaches — and many sports writers — often referred to Akers as a “freak,” as in freak of nature.

Rick Cleveland

Now that Akers plays for the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL, the term still applies, although now his achievements astound even the medical community.

Here’s why: On July 20 preparing for training camp, Akers suffered a completely torn Achilles tendon that required surgery. Approximately five months later, on Christmas Day, the Rams put Akers back on the active roster. On Jan. 9, he played in the last regular season game. On Jan. 17, in a playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, Akers carried the ball 17 times for 55 yards and caught a pass for 40 yards in the Rams’ 34-11 victory. Some of his best plays were negated by penalties. Afterward, Rams coach Sean McVay awarded him the game ball — as much for his stunningly rapid recovery and rehab as for his performance.

It was deserved.

You see, Achilles ruptures usually require up to a year of recovery and some are often career-ending. One medical study showed that between 2010 and 2015, 78 NFL players suffered Achilles tears. Of those, 26% never played another down. Another recent study by orthopedic researchers, studying professional athletes in football, basketball, baseball and soccer, found that 24% who suffered a torn Achilles were forced to retire. For those who did continue to play, the average length of time to return to the game was 11 months.

On Sunday, Akers will line up for the Rams against the defending NFL Champion Tampa Bay Bucs in the NFC semifinal game right at six months after surgery.

Clinton Coach Jud Boswell and quarterback Cam Akers in 2016 when Akers led Clinton to the Class 6A state championship. Credit: Rick Cleveland

None of this surprises Clinton football coach Judd Boswell, who says, “Nothing that dude does surprises me. When he was here in September for our homecoming game, he was already two months ahead of his recovery schedule and he was just two months out of surgery. It just shows his work ethic and the kind of person he is. I have never known another person as driven and competitive as he is. He could have taken it a lot easier and a lot safer and just prepared to come back next season. Most would. But that’s not him. That’s not Cam. He would consider that letting down his coaches and his teammates. He’s different now. He’s a different dude.”

Perhaps the most famous return from Achilles injury in sports history was that of the late Kobe Bryant. His return to NBA play in 2014 nine months after surgery was often described as “miraculous.”

And then there’s Akers, who at age 22 returned to the most punishing of sports roughly five and a half months after surgery. In the victory over the Cardinals Monday night, he appeared the best player on the field. Interestingly, both Bryant’s and Akers’ surgeries were performed by Dr. Neal ElAttache, a renowned Los Angeles surgeon, who used a relatively new surgical technique on Akers. Not only did he repair the torn tendon, he added what is referred to as an internal brace that adds stability to the repaired tendon.

University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) surgeon Lori Reed has repaired more torn Achilles than she cares to remember and calls Akers’ recovery “amazingly quick.”

Recovery for normal people — “weekend warriors,” as Reed calls them — is 10 months to a year.

Several factors, she said, could be involved in Akers’ astonishingly fast recovery, including that “elite athletes like these are made differently and you have to realize this is their job.”

“They aren’t coming in for rehab for an hour two or three times a week,” Reed said. “They are spending entire days rehabbing.”

Akers has said he spent as much as 10 hours a day working out and rehabbing his leg.

Again, Boswell isn’t surprised.“Nobody — and I mean, nobody — works harder than Cam Akers. That’s just who he is,” the high school coach said.

Sunday’s Rams-Bucs outcome could hinge on how well Akers runs the ball. He was the Rams’ leading rusher as rookie in 2020. He gives the Rams a combination of speed, muscle and shiftiness they don’t otherwise possess. And he will be going against a Bucs defense that ranked third in the NFL against the run and was especially effective in home games.

It’s a daunting task, and would be even for someone who isn’t six months removed from surgery to the biggest, strongest tendon in the human body.

Says Boswell, “All I know, I darn sure would not bet against him.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.