Chuck McGill: Willie Akers stands tall on 76th birthday
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.
That was hard to fathom on Valentine's Day - the day after the fall - when doctors were giving Willie a 50-50 chance of ever walking again.
Now, however, the Akers family is returning to normalcy. Linda and Willie went to the movies to see "White House Down" on Saturday. Willie works a couple hours every day after completing therapy. They're learning how to adapt, to prepare before going out to eat or shop.
They do not take simple pleasures for granted.
"I just miss the spontaneity," Linda said. "You don't just jump up and go because you really have to plan things. The normal things you take for granted."
Willie misses his car. His right side is weaker than the left, so the strength and trust in the leg he uses for driving isn't there yet. He wants to drive to Morgantown again to see WVU football and basketball games. He wants to climb the Mountaineer Field and Coliseum steps without assistance.
There's no reason to doubt the spry septuagenarian. He is applying the lessons he learned and taught through sports since before he starred for the WVU basketball team from 1958-60 alongside Jerry West.
"When I was a kid they demanded that you condition and work hard and I think that's very important," Willie said. "You learn those lessons and you don't ever forget them. If you've competed in sports, you know you have to push on and push through.
"When it hurts, it's good. If you hurt, you're helping. I didn't let a little hurtin' stop me."
A day after Willie stood tall and blew out his candles Friday, Linda watched as her husband maneuvered himself in bed Saturday morning. Without her assistance, Willie pushed himself up, grabbed his walker and got out of bed by himself.
That was first. He repeated the achievement Sunday morning before church.
It was a simple gift on the eve of Willie turning a year older.
"That," Linda said, "is a wonderful birthday present."
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.