It was on the drive from his hotel in Greenville, S.C., that the thought struck Jeff Akers. He was on his way to officiate a Clemson football game at Memorial Stadium, also known as Death Valley, in front of 85,000 of the most ardent fans in the country.
“I thought, ‘This is a long way from doing a Brookline High JV game on a Monday afternoon,’ ” he said.
A standout linebacker at Lynn Classical High School, where he played on two Super Bowl squads, Akers received a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1986. After being cut by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Akers returned to Lynn and was working three part-time jobs. One gig was driving a limo. It changed his life.
On one mid-November Saturday, he was hired to drive the officiating crew to the annual Amherst-Williams football clash in Western Massachusetts.
“I didn’t know any of these guys,’’ Akers said, “but I was impressed with their camaraderie, the storytelling, their jokes. I learned a lot about officials that day. As a player and a fan, I never watched the officials. I watched them that day at Amherst. It was a different perspective.
“I had so much fun with those guys.”
Then it hit him. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ ”
Akers worked high school football games for five seasons before moving up to the college level.
“The first game I did was Fitchburg State at Maine Maritime,” he said. Nothing like a trip to Castine, Maine.
He still worked high school games on the side. “You had to put in the time,” he said. “It’s very competitive.”
By his fourth year as a collegiate official, he was working Ivy League and Patriot League games. Then it was two years in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and four years in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Akers just finished his fourth year working Big East games, but he's had assignments at LSU and Stanford, and also officiated the Boston College-Notre Dame game at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill in November.
Last Thursday night, the 49-year-old Akers received the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s Joseph V. McKenney Award as the region’s top collegiate official.
He is on the short list of officials who might be hired by the National Football League. On Sunday, he was in a private box in Atlanta, charting information for the NFL during the Falcons-Seahawks playoff game.
Quite a leap from his starry days at Lynn Classical (class of 1981), or even suiting up for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. The legendary coach’s interest in the Globe All-Scholastic linebacker was such that he spoke at the Lynn Classical banquet.
It was right after his Wolverines had won the Rose Bowl.
“That was impressive,” said Akers. “I hadn’t even made my visit to Michigan yet.”
Archrival Ohio State was also after Akers. Nick Saban — who led Alabama to its second consecutive national title last week — was the Buckeyes’ linebackers coach. “He said, ‘We want you terribly.’ He was very persuasive,” Akers recalled.
But Bo’s trip to Lynn had sealed the deal for Akers.
The starting quarterback at Michigan was Jim Harbaugh, now in his second year coaching the San Francisco 49ers. “He was very intense, and he was one of the best-conditioned guys I’ve ever met,” said Akers.
Two Massachusetts running backs, Bob Perryman (Bourne) and Jamie Morris (Ayer), were also on that team. Future head coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were members of Schembechler’s staff.
Playing at the Big House, in front of 110,000-plus at Michigan Stadium, leaves an impression.
“I remember my first game there,” said Akers. “We were playing Notre Dame. We came out for early warm-ups and it looked like the place was empty, although there were probably 30,000 fans already there. We . . . come out for a second warm-up, and there’s about 50,000.”
Akers couldn’t figure it out. Where was everybody? “When we came out for the game, it was surreal — a hundred thousand people,” he said. “It took my breath away. I called my brother after the game. He said, ‘Do you realize there were more people at the game than there are in Lynn?’ ”
Akers broke his arm during his freshman year and was redshirted. The next year he didn’t get in any games. His junior year he moved from inside linebacker to outside.
“I played a lot; on special teams too,” he said.
He went back to the bench the next season. He thought his college career was over. “But they asked me to come back for my fifth year. I played every game and had nine sacks. It was well worth the wait.”
The second-ranked Wolverines went 10-1-1 and beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl his final year. Playing for Schembechler was an indelible experience. “Bo was tough but fair. He was bigger than life. I adored him,” said Akers.
His older brother, Arthur, played linebacker at UCLA, and was a captain his senior year.
Akers, a widower, resides in Salem. His wife, Brenda, died two days after giving birth to their son, Arthur, now a senior at St. John’s Prep.
It’s easier to crack a bank vault than it is to enter the small society of NFL officials, but Akers holds on to the dream. He’s still young and in good shape. He realizes NFL officials work under intense scrutiny: “It’s unbelievable. You make one mistake and you’ll see it 100 times on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”
But he’s ready for the bright lights. Maybe he’ll find out whether NFL crews take a limo to the game.