Hakim Akbar Reflects on his Life, Part 1

Former Husky great Hakim Akbar and his older brother Mikal endured a traumatic and difficult upbringing. Estranged from their troubled mother and semi-estranged from their struggling father, they moved from one family to another. Their dad Ken Akbar finally asked the court to grant him custody, and the court agreed. As soon as they moved in, the boys began running wild.

"We just basically lived on the street," recalled Mikal years later. "Basically we did what we wanted to do. My dad didn't approve of that at all."

In 1995, when Hakim was fourteen, life changed drastically again. He and Mikal saw their father arrested and sentenced to eight years for armed robbery of a nearby savings and loan. This situation infuriated Mikal and tore Hakim apart and rendered him sullen. During one of their subsequent prison visits to see their dad, Ken Akbar made a promise to his sons: he would turn his life around if they would work hard and be productive citizens.

The boys found sanctuary playing football for Riverside Poly, while bouncing between two understanding families in Riverside. When Mikal began attending the local community college and Hakim was a senior football star in high school, the boys moved into their own apartment with financial assistance coming from relatives.

When Hakim Akbar arrived at Washington in August 1998, he was immediately earmarked for stardom. UW Quarterback Brock Huard noticed how Akbar shadowed receivers like a veteran. Head Coach Jim Lambright liked his ferocious hitting and intensity. One of the Husky seniors quietly predicted to a reporter that Akbar would leave early for the NFL; a prediction that became true.

Derek Johnson: I want to start by asking you about your father. I remember the stories from the Rose Bowl year talking about how much you and your brother were looking forward to your father's release from prison. How has the transition been?

Hakim Akbar: I don't want to speak about my father. I will answer any questions relating to myself. But every time I tried to be an athlete the writers would want to find out what made me into what I am, and making my upbringing the entire story. It always ended up indentifying me in that way, instead of the person I was in the process of becoming. The stories were always about my Dad being in prison and all that, and I would rather just talk about myself.

Johnson: Fair enough. I can appreciate that. Tell me then about the experience of being recruited to Washington.

Akbar: Recruitment for me was very big. I was looking for a school that had a history of grooming safeties who were making a lot of plays and making things happen. Washington had had Lawyer Milloy, and a lot of other great safeties before Lawyer as well. I chose Washington because it wasn't too far away from California and it wasn't too far a journey if I needed to get home. I decided to stay on the West Coast. A lot of southern schools were recruiting me. I remember Tennessee's head coach (Phil Fulmer) coming to my high school to talk to me. I was recruited by everybody. It was a crazy thing. I committed to Washington after my recruiting trip to Seattle. The sun was shining and it wasn't raining. I said, I'M GOING TO WASHINGTON!

Johnson: After having to work some stuff out with the SATs, you arrived just in time for two-a-days in August 1998. Describe the experience of meeting someone who eventually became your best friend - Curtis Williams.

Akbar: I had to earn my stripes. I was a young pup. Every time I would come up for a hit, my timing was a bit off. I wasn't in sync. As time went on and the 1998 season came, Curtis wasn't there. He was suspended and dealing with something off the field, so I didn't get a chance to meet him. I finally met him in the spring of 1999. Curtis came in and everybody was giving him respect and love. At first it was a fierce competition between us.

During practice he would bang somebody and I would go bang somebody, and he would shout I'M HOLDING THIS SIDE DOWN! And I would yell back WELL, I'M HOLDING THIS SIDE DOWN TOO! But we became closer and closer. He became my roommate on away games. Every night before a game, we had our traditions. We would get a mouthful of chew and watch a movie. He got me to try chew a few times, but it made me dizzy. We would go to a theater and talk about how we wanted to make it to the NFL. He was separated from his wife, but Curtis would say how much he loved his daughter and his girlfriend. He wanted to make it for them.

Johnson: What about his wife Michelle?

Akbar: I don't remember his wife Michelle, I don't think I ever met her. They had split up by the time I arrived at Washington. I think she was living in Alaska. But all I know is that he really loved his girlfriend (April). She was a sweet lady.

Johnson: Describe your friendship with Curtis.

Akbar: Just seeing how Curtis played the game motivated me. He was older than me. He had what I called 'Grown man strength'. We would wrassle in the locker room and lock up. We would try to freight each other around, but he was a big, strong man. I was strong too, but I couldn't slam him and it bothered me. That was just the fun type of relationship we had. Out on the field, looking out to my right and taking my mouthpiece out and shouting CURTIS, WE DON'T PLAY WITH MOUTHPIECES! WE GOT TO TALK TO THEM, THEY GOTTA HEAR US OUT HERE! THEY GOTTA FEEL US! Curtis would yell back, 'YEP! NO MOUTHPIECES OVER HERE BABY! WE'RE ABOUT TO THROW IT DOWN!'

That was the kind of nastiness and shrewdness that we liked to play with. We had those chips on our shoulders. We would get fired up. Coach (Bobby) Hauck would tell us to get into our nasty dispositions. Safeties play with a nasty creed. We get a piece of every play we can. That's what we did.

Johnson: On October 28, 2000 against Stanford in Palo Alto, Curtis went down on a hit and was paralyzed. Linebacker Derrell Daniels told me that he was so mortified that he was grateful he only had 3-4 games left in the season because after that he would never have to play football again.

Akbar: Yes, a lot of us felt that away. I'm the one who surrendered the touchdown to (Stanford QB Randy) Fasani on a bootleg. I just flat-out missed it. I was just out of it and grief-stricken. That put Stanford ahead with one minute left in the game. My partner back there in the secondary, who played like me and went through a lot with me, had been taken off the field paralyzed. I was out of it. On the sidelines, I cried on Coach Hauck's shoulder for awhile, until he snapped me out of it. He said, HAKIM, GET OUT THERE AND FINISH THE GAME!

We rallied behind Marques Tuiasosopo. We needed him. A lot of guys looked up to him. Seeing how he finished that game helped all of us snap out of what we were going through, and pull out a win. After Curtis went down, I was ready to throw it away. I didn't care if we lost to Stanford. But after seeing Marques running up and down the field, fighting fighting fighting - it made me fight too! After that game, I contemplated if I wanted to play football again. I was up and down with that for awhile. It was hard, man. I called home after the game and cried to my father, telling him I couldn't take it anymore. I was done with football. He told me, 'What is that going to do? What's that going to accomplish? You've been playing this game for years, what do you have to be scared of?'

So I got back up on my feet and pulled myself together. The next week we played Arizona at home. After every hit I would jump up and shake my hands and make sure I could move my limbs. It was a kind of paranoia. At the time it was a really scary game. I had to snap out of that. Arizona kept running those stretch sweeps right up the middle. They were going up and down the field. Then I had one banger on the sidelines, and that brought me back somewhat.

Johnson: In the weeks subsequent to his injury, you visited Curtis.

Akbar: I remember that me, Coach (Rick) Neuheisel and Coach Hauck flew down to Stanford Hospital to visit with Curtis right after he got hurt. It hurt me to see him lay there motionless and having machines breathe for him. But I didn't want to cry. When I went in the room, I smiled and gave him love. I said, 'Hey, we love you man and we're going to go play for you.' It was hard for him to talk at times. But his spirits were up. It was hard talking to him but I had to be strong. Different players would go each week during the season with Coach Neuheisel and Coach Hauck. It was a good way that Neuheisel did things.

Johnson: Your team rallied to beat Arizona, UCLA and Washington State to clinch the Pac-10 Championship. Six weeks later the Huskies arrived at the Rose Bowl to take on Purdue. Curtis was waiting for you guys in the locker room. Describe what happened.

Akbar: We're leaving the bus and heading to the stadium. We arrive in the locker room. He's in his wheelchair. He's got his Washington jersey on, with black jeans and brand-new Jordans. But he has lost a tremendous amount of weight. He used to be 220 pounds, and now he looks to be maybe 140-150 pound. The first thing I do is walk up to him and kiss him on the cheek and tell him I love him. I tell him that I'm going to play my ass off for him. And I'm motivated right there and boiling inside. I go get dressed at my locker and I don't take another look at Curtis because if I do I'm gonna cry. So I put my game headphones on, and get into my own zone. I'm about to ball for Curtis. I'm gonna go crazy for Curtis.

I was held out of the first series for a team violation. As soon as I get in the game I'm going nuts, I'm amplified inside. I'm ready to run through anybody that's moving. As soon as Purdue sends a ball carrier up the middle, I fly in there and I fold it. I point up to the press box because I know Curtis is up there. I shout THAT'S FOR YOU CURTIS! AND THAT'S HOW IT'S GOING DOWN ALL GAME! Sure enough, me and (Greg) Carothers are coming up and smacking this boy from Purdue. I hit this one guy so hard along the sideline that it caused a fumble. My shoulder got a stinger and it hurt so bad I ran off the field crying. As soon as I got strength back in my arm, I got back out there. And I'm right back at it. I'm hitting one guy after another. After every play I'm looking up and shouting to Curtis, YEA! THAT'S FOR YOU BABY!

I remember one special hit on the Purdue running back. He came up and tried to spin on me. I'm all up in his facemask and knocked it into his mouth. When that boy got up he had nothing but a mouthful of blood. I was pumped up. Every bit of it was for Curtis. I didn't pay attention to the crowd or anything else. I was in the zone.

After the game, even though I had so many family and friends there, I only wanted to see Curtis. I got to see him before they hooked him back up into the wires and placed him in the bed and back into the ambulance to leave. It really hit me at that point how serious this was and that he was never going to recover. It really messed with me a lot. It was a factor in me coming out early for the NFL Draft. I wanted to give Seattle another year so bad. However, there was no way I could stay in that locker room and feel the same and play the same, knowing what happened to him. I decided that I would go to the NFL so that if it ever happened to me, my family would be taken care of. That wasn't the only reason I left early, but it was a large part. I was so traumatized by the horrors of breaking my neck and being paralyzed. So I forwent my senior year and was drafted by the New England Patriots.

They tell you the draft is just a slot. For me it was more personal. The decisions I made cost me position in the draft. In some ways I wasn't being a mature man. When the scouts came to Washington they wanted to see me, but I had told my agent to tell them I wasn't going to be there. He never did tell them that I was down in California spending time with my brother Mikal who had torn his ACL. I was trying to be a loyal brother, but in looking back it was immature and a dumb mistake. I ended up going in the 5th round. When the first day of the draft passed, I was crying and upset. My draft party turned into a horror party. When I got to New England I couldn't understand why they picked me. Lawyer Milloy was already there. He had the safety spot. What was the point? I knew they had gotten a steal by getting me in the 5th round.

I decided that I had to prove myself. My rookie year, I was in the top shape of my life. During the pre-season I was going crazy and making plays. I think I had the most tackles in that whole pre-season. I was a wild man. On a couple of occasions, Coach (Bill) Belichick pulled me aside and said GOOD GAME HAKIM! They loved what I was doing. I had to go five weeks into the season before I got a chance to play in a game. They didn't feel I was mature enough to be in there. I didn't understand why. I was going 110 percent all the time. When I was supposed to be walking, I was jogging. When I was supposed to be jogging, I was running.

It was against Miami game when I got into my first regular season game. I ran down on a kickoff and knocked one of the linemen right into the return man. Play was dead, right there. Coach Belichick was quoted the next week in either Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News saying that I was going to be a special player.

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