August 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Rams’ Cam Akers gets long-distance love from his parents

Cam Akers had just finished the best performance of any rookie running back this season, rushing for 171 yards in the Rams’ rout of the New England Patriots.

But when he hopped on the phone with his family shortly after, his mood wasn’t entirely celebratory.

Those numbers filled the stat sheet, but not the scoreboard.

“He was upset that he didn’t find the end zone,” said his father, Conni Akers. “It’s always a challenge for him to try and do more.”

As Akers, 21, completes his first regular season, his parents and three other siblings felt every emotion while watching from afar, they said. It started in November, when he scored his first touchdown and has since seen an increased role in the Rams’ offense.

But that’s not all they’re proud of, they said.

Akers met adversity early and handled it maturely, his parents said. Overcoming hurdles is something he has done since his childhood in Clinton, Miss., where he became a high school football legend in the state.

“It has been such a great experience to see the evolution of Cam Akers,” said his mother, Angela Neal. “The Rams are really working with him. The coaches are motivating him and staying on him, and you can see the progression week by week.”

Florida State’s Cam Akers warms up prior to a game against Alabama on Sept. 2, 2017 in Atlanta.

(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Akers’ parents are accustomed to seeing their son play well. As a quarterback at Clinton High, he amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards and 149 touchdowns in his career, earning the 2016 Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and the U.S. Army Player of the Year as a senior.

As a Florida State running back, he broke Dalvin Cook’s freshman rushing-yards record and became the third Seminole in program history to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

But the NFL presented unique challenges.

As the NFL scouting combine approached, Akers flew to California in January to train in Orange County. Neal worried about the distance. The trip, though, exposed Akers to the region. Neal said Akers “fell in love” with Southern California’s weather and “vibe.” He became excited about a Los Angeles team possibly drafting him, Neal said.

“We tried to talk him out of it, like ‘Cam, isn’t that a little far?’” Neal said. “But he was like, ‘Yeah, I know, but that is one of my spots.’”

The Rams granted his wish, selecting him in the second round. The family hosted a watch party, Neal calling it an “out-of-body sensation” when Commissioner Roger Goodell called her son’s name. The NFL modified its offseason programs because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing Akers to stay home longer. But when he reported to training camp, things became “real,” Conni said.

“In our minds, we switched from, ‘It’s all fun and games’ to ‘It’s a job now,’” he said, “Now, you’re on the clock.”

Watching the Rams play on Sundays is a “festive, hostile environment,” Conni said. He said he is normally the supportive critic who will point out if Akers missed a potential hole or carried the ball in the wrong arm. Neal, meanwhile, is the encouraging motivator.

Either way, the family yells all afternoon, Neal said.

Conni Akers, Cam, Angela and Neal at the U.S. Army All American Bowl.

Conni Akers, Cam, Angela and Neal at the U.S. Army All American Bowl.

(Courtesy of the Akers family)

Akers started the first two games, then suffered a rib injury early against the Philadelphia Eagles. He missed two weeks.

“That was hard,” Neal said. “I wanted to be on the first plane to L.A. and I was going into ‘This is my baby’ mode. But he was like, ‘No, ma, I am going to be fine.’”

Neal said she thinks Akers adopted that mentality around age 10 in 2009 when doctors diagnosed her with Stage II breast cancer. She beat the disease two years later, but experienced weakness, hair loss and weight loss during treatments. She also underwent a mastectomy.

Still, she never missed a sporting event.

“She always found the strength to get up and do that,” Akers said in a video produced by the Rams. “When you got a mother like that, what can you complain about?”

Said Neal: “My motivation was for my children and to say ‘I’m going to finish this fight here.’ I think seeing me go through that made him say, ‘If my momma can do this, I can do anything.’”

Rams running back Cam Akers stretches with running back Darrell Henderson Jr.

Rams running back Cam Akers stretches with running back Darrell Henderson Jr. as the team conducts practice at the Rams training facility in Thousand Oaks.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Akers broke off a 46-yard run against Washington, but played four combined snaps against the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears. In the next two games, he rushed only 19 times.

Coach Sean McVay instead leaned on veteran running back Malcolm Brown and second-year pro Darrell Henderson. McVay said he had confidence in Akers, calling him “dynamic” as a runner and receiver. But the rookie needed to improve in pass protection and “continue to learn how to compete without the ball,” McVay said.

Conni said the limited role affected Akers, but he didn’t sulk.

“He’s the type of person that when he gets his opportunity, he’s going to show people, ‘Look, this is what I can do. This is what I bring to the table,’ ” Conni said.

The family drove more than 900 miles to watch the Rams play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month. There, from high “nosebleed” seats at Raymond James Stadium, they screamed as Akers caught a four-yard touchdown pass, his first NFL score. Afterward, Neal joked with her son, saying “I knew you were waiting on your mom to come so you could score your first touchdown.”

In the following three games, he has accounted for 372 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 62 touches. Akers’ parents said they’ve seen Clinton start to embrace the Rams, with more people wearing team-branded masks, hats and T-shirts. Conni said he is still waiting on his son’s No. 23 jersey that he ordered a while ago, and was shocked to see others wearing one before him.

Akers’ parents said they are excited to see how he finishes his rookie year. They share a close bond and try to call him every day. Neal said she wants Akers to “stay hungry, but be humble and grateful for every carry.” Conni agreed and wants his son to continue progressing.

“We’re seeing him overcome some stuff,” he said. “Now, he has a long way to go; he hasn’t made it to where he needs to be. But we kind of see the gradual evolution of where he’s headed.”