January 20, 2013
By Charles Cuttone
Michelle Akers: Simply the best
Every sport has its legends -- Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Gordie Howe, Jesse Owens, Arnold Palmer, Richard Petty, Billie Jean King. Names that resonate even with non-sports fans.
|Although others have scored more goals, Michelle Akers’ status as one of the legends of the women’s game remains undimmed.
Photo by Phil Stevens
Even though she does not think so, Michelle Akers belongs on that list.
Yes, Mia Hamm scored more goals, and got a lot of acclaim in the first comet-like burst of popularity for women’s soccer. Abby Wambach will very shortly break Hamm’s scoring records, with totals that likely will fall once again as the career of 23-year-old Alex Morgan continues to blossom. But, simply put, Akers was the best.
A great goal scorer who had the ability to make plays, would throw her body in harm’s way just to win a 50-50 ball at midfield—a total commitment and competitiveness evidenced by her more than 30 surgeries -- Akers transformed the game all the while having an innate ability to lift her team, make those around her better and prove once and for all that girls can be just as tough and competitive on the field as boys.
Akers was one of that first generation of women’s soccer players who benefitted from the passage of Title IX but, unlike many of the female athletes today, didn’t have any opportunities handed to her.
A native of Santa Clara, Calif., she grew up near Seattle, Wash. Akers was recruited by Anson Dorrance to attend the University of North Carolina but turned down the opportunity, an unheard of occurrence in those early days of the Tar Heels NCAA dynasty.
Instead, Akers went to the University of Central Florida, not exactly a soccer powerhouse, then or now, and proceeded to win the Hermann Trophy.
Akers became part of the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team to take the field in 1985, scoring the first goal in the history of the team in its second game, after missing the first due to an ankle injury.
Injury and a debilitating illness would become as much a part of her playing resume as the 105 goals and 36 assists she amassed in a career that spanned 1985-2000.
It’s no small irony that at the moment when the U.S. won the 1999 World Cup in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, Akers wasn’t on the field. After sacrificing her body for a good portion of the 110 minutes of the game, she was in the locker room hooked up to an i.v., trying to battle the effects of her chronic fatigue syndrome.
She made it back out to the podium for the Gold Medal ceremony, but after a few games in 2000 with the national team, she was forced to retire from the game she helped shape.
The Golden Boot winner at the 1991 World Cup, twice the U.S. Soccer Women’s Athlete of the Year, she never won the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award because she retired the year it was instituted. Nevertheless, she was still receiving votes for the international honor five years after her retirement.
After bitter legal battles with U.S. Soccer related to her various injuries, Akers has been away from the game a dozen years---far too long.
Not long ago, however, she decided the game was too much a part of her, so she phoned Louise Waxler, someone who herself has done as much for the women’s game as anyone, and said she wanted to come to this year’s NSCAA Convention. Waxler and the NSCAA CEO Joe Cummings made it happen. Akers was guest of honor at the annual women’s committee breakfast, and gave an entertaining talk to the several hundred lucky enough to be on hand. Several hours later, at the Charlotte Moran Foundation booth, the line for her autograph was among the longest I have seen in nearly 20 years of going to the convention.
With yet another a new women’s league on tap, the third try in a decade, the sport now has an opportunity to embrace its greatest player ever. Hopefully U.S. Soccer, which is in the midst of honoring its past with a centennial celebration, will acknowledge that. The sport is better with Akers in it than without.