There is nothing quite like the feeling of kicking a football through the uprights while 11 giant men bullrush you and millions of people watch live on TV. For David Akers, who experienced such plays more than 1,000 times over his 16 NFL seasons, the thrill of rounding six buoys at 34 mph is close enough. “Being on the water is my happy place,” says Akers, following another day of doing just that in early June.
If the name sounds familiar, it probably is. In a world where kickers do not always get the attention of, say, the star quarterback, Akers put together one of the more esteemed careers in recent memory, including 12 memorable seasons in Philadelphia. Over the course of his career he was All-Pro twice, a six-time Pro Bowler and played in two Super Bowls — one with the Eagles, and another with the 49ers. His 44 field goals with the 49ers in 2011 remains an NFL single-season record.
Those days are over, though, and Akers, now 45 and living with his family in Franklin, Tenn., has gone all in on water skiing. Though he’s not exactly at an All-Pro level on the water, he’s pouring all of those same competitive juices that saw him nail 386 field goals and 563 extra points in the NFL into rounding the buoys, and the self-described “water rat” is endearing himself to people all across the ski community along the way. “He’s a good person to have in the sport just as a person, and it’s got nothing to do with him being a former pro athlete,” says friend and ski partner Paul Turner.
Water skiing is not completely new to Akers. Growing up in Lexington, Ky., his family had a 22-foot cuddy cabin boat they would take out on the weekend for kneeboarding, skurfing and some slaloming on the single ski the family shared. That ended when Akers turned 17 and was preparing to start a collegiate football career at Louisville. Twenty-two years later, at age 39, the football career came to an end following the 2013 season with the Detroit Lions.
Slalom skiing was still far from his mind four years later when Griff Irby pulled up to the dock at the Akers’ lake house on Tims Ford Lake in southern Tennessee. Irby’s nephew played lacrosse with Akers’ oldest son, Luke, and had a home of his own on the lake. The first thing he noticed that day was Akers’ wakeboard boat. “And it was like, oh great just what we need, another wakeboard boat,” he recalled dryly. As it turned out, Akers was checking out Irby’s slalom boat, too. “I said hey man nice ski boat,” he recalled. On that Father’s Day of 2017, the men agreed to go for a slalom set behind Irby’s boat the following morning.
When Akers retired from the NFL, he found a void left in that competitive space occupied for so long by football. He tried taking up golf but “didn’t feel fulfilled at all.” Something about slalom skiing — the workout, the challenge, the competitiveness — just clicked. “I still have the video of my skiing and it was awful,” Akers says, “really, really bad. But I was hooked.” Irby does not try to refute that, though the potential was there. “Clearly you’re Wally weekender, rear tail loading the ski, but he could ski,” Ibry says. “And the guy is an athlete.”
One does not get to the NFL, much less stay there for 16 seasons, without doing something right. Akers brought that same work ethic and analytical mind to the new sport. He also brought his natural charisma. “He’s kind of the social butterfly,” Irby says. “He is the first guy to introduce himself to people and get their story.” That style helped Akers dive headfirst into the sport and make a lot of new friends, and before long Akers counted among those friends some of the sport’s top skiers and most esteemed coaches. “He just wasn’t afraid to ask,” Turner says. “That is the beauty of the sport, and that’s another thing he loves about it — and we all love about it. None of us have any secrets. We love the sport so much and we want other people to love it like we do.”
Even the most enlightened network can only take one so far, though. Akers was coming back to the sport after a 26-year absence, and he had a lot to catch up on. “I learned that I had been getting up improperly my whole life,” he says. And that was only the beginning. Early on Akers was practically doing biceps curls behind the boat, he says, and “every natural intuition of being in a good athletic stance is out the window when it comes to skiing.”
So, Akers threw himself at those challenges with the same intensity that led him to become an Eagles’ hall of famer. As a kicker, Akers spent countless hours studying film and biomechanics. Now as a skier he films just about every set and confesses his wife has caught him falling asleep to water ski videos on his phone. He is also diving in to better understand nuances of ski equipment and learning how to drive so he can better understand that perspective, too. And that is to say nothing of his businesslike approach on the water. “I don’t do anything halfway,” he says.
Last year, Akers took the next step by competing in his first two tournaments: the Tennessee State Water Ski Championships and Southern Regional Water Ski Championships. This year he is hoping to compete more, and hopefully qualify for the 78th GOODE Water Ski National Championships; he is also aiming to run the course at 35 off. At the same time, his focus remains on the process. He is strong out of the gate, but the key to unlocking the next step, he says, is improving his off-side turns, particularly at the first buoy. “My one ball is killing me,” he says. “If I do that, I’m going to be golden. Until the next thing I have to fix, right?”
The process is all part of the fun. The other part, he says, is the people.
Like most everyone, Akers has had his spring and summer plans thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic. Though he has had media roles and is involved in some other business and charitable endeavors, Akers’ professional life these days is primarily as a corporate and faith-based speaker. Already 20 engagements he had been booked for have canceled. The good news for Akers is that it has meant more time to get on the water with all of his new friends. It has also meant more time with his wife Erika and three kids, Luke, 18, Halley, 15, and Sawyer, 12.
And sometimes, when he is lucky, those worlds come together. While Luke is following his dad’s footsteps as a football kicker — he’s a three-star recruit headed to UCLA next season — the younger two kids have begun picking up on David’s passion for water skiing themselves, and both hope to compete in their first tournaments this summer. “As a father to have that extra time with your kids,” he said, “it’s priceless.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of The Water Skier magazine, the official publication of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports. If you are not a member of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports and you are interested in receiving the quarterly magazine, join now.