CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Willie Akers turns 76 years old Monday.
The Mountain State basketball legend celebrated a few days early surrounded by family and friends Friday at his Logan home.
Willie's wife, Linda, eschewed the task of placing 76 individual candles on her husband's favorite cake: chocolate on chocolate. Instead, she pushed two candles - a 7 and a 6 - into the icing.
After Linda lit the candles, Willie stood and blew them out. No wish needed. Willie's accomplishment of that seemingly simple task is all the Akers family could've asked for when they began this arduous journey Feb. 13.
Willie Akers, a four-time Logan High School state championship boys basketball coach who has a place in the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame, is making gradual improvements after suffering a spinal injury from a fall at the Charleston Civic Center in February.
He broke the C-6 vertebrae - in addition to a broken nose and cervical fracture - and initially had paralysis in all four limbs. He had to learn how to swallow again.
He underwent rigorous therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta until May 17, when he was allowed to return to West Virginia two weeks early.
Chalk that up to Willie's competitive spirit.
"He loved to compete against other patients," Linda said. "That athleticism and competitiveness kicks in. He would usually win, too - see who could walk the farthest, stand the longest."
Willie has been home for six weeks. He goes to therapy four days a week.
"At the beginning I didn't know where I was," Willie said. "Finally, as I went through the Atlanta deal, I started getting stronger."
He has a motorized wheelchair and a manual wheelchair. Gradually, he leaned more heavily on a walker, but he has grander ambitions.
"I eventually hope to get on a cane for a little bit and then get off everything," Willie said.