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September 9, 2012
Before 2012, David Akers was already on the short list of the best kickers in NFL history, a 14-year veteran and two-time All-Pro with a solid pressure résumé. His career long was 57 yards, in 2003, and he had made a 55-yarder in '11, his first season with the 49ers after 12 in Philadelphia. Clinging to a 13--7 lead against the Packers with two seconds left in the first half, coach Jim Harbaugh sent Akers out to try the first record attempt of his career.
"I really felt like I underswung. I thought it was maybe good from 56 or 57 yards. But then it hits the crossbar, and I'm pretty good at having it hit the crossbar and shoot right back at me after it makes that awful noise. Having it hit the bar and bounce [over]—one of the funniest, most surprising moments I've ever been a part of. Afterward I got calls from [Titans kicker] Rob Bironas, [the Cardinals'] Jay Feely, [the Giants'] Lawrence Tynes, [free agent] Olindo Mare and a bunch of other guys. Everybody knew."
It's easy to imagine that Akers's career was a given because it's been so long and so successful. But it nearly ended multiple times before he made his first field goal. As a rookie free agent out of Louisville in 1997 he was cut by the Panthers and spent a year teaching middle school science back in Kentucky. In '98 he was signed and activated by the Redskins, but cut after a single game. Afterward he took a job waiting tables at a Longhorn Steakhouse outside Atlanta, where he had also tried out.
That December he worked out for the Eagles on a windy, 17° morning on a makeshift field on the roof of a parking garage next to Veterans Stadium. "Waste of time," he told his wife, Erika (with whom he would have three children, daughter Halley and sons Luke and Sawyer). But the Eagles—special teams coach John Harbaugh and head coach Andy Reid—saw something more. They signed him and allocated him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe. In June 1999 he contracted food poisoning and lay in a Berlin hospital with a 105° fever, unable to understand his doctors, talking to his wife on a landline phone dragged into his room by a nurse. "Honey, all I want to do is get home and start a life," he remembers saying. "Football is over."
The Eagles had other ideas. They kept Akers in that 1999 season as a kickoff and long-field-goal specialist. His first points came on a 53-yarder at Pro Player Stadium in Miami during a 16--13 loss to the Dolphins. By 2000 he was Philadelphia's regular kicker, and in Week 11 that season against the Steelers, he executed an onside kick that the Eagles recovered. They tied the game and won it in overtime. In fickle Philly, heroes have been made for doing less.
"Blessed," says Akers, now 37, "to have had the opportunities I've had...."
And 63? "I truly believe that a lot of guys can make this kick," he says, "and that the record will be shattered."
In 1970, the year of Dempsey's 63-yarder, NFL kickers made 59.4% of their field goal attempts. From 50 yards and beyond they were less than half as efficient, just 23.3%. A long kick was a long shot. This has changed dramatically. Through seven weeks of the 2012 season (excluding Monday night), kickers have made 87.5% of all attempts and are hitting 66.1% from 50 yards and beyond. This evolution has occurred as kicking style transformed from Dempsey's toe-first, straight-on technique to the sidewinding, instep-driven approach that was initially called "soccer style." (The last straight-on NFL kicker, Mark Moseley, who once attempted a 74-yard field goal on a free kick, retired in 1986.)
"Kickers are bigger, faster and better trained than when I came into the league," says Hanson. "We are certainly not football players in the sense that we still don't run around and get hit, but it's become something that young athletes aspire to. The expectation now is different, too. If they send you out there, anywhere, you're expected to make the kick."