Akeem Adams was 22 years old when his body finally gave up its fight on Dec. 30, 2013, at the Varosmajori Heart Clinic in Budapest, Hungary.
Adams had spent three months fighting for his life with a mechanical heart and an amputated leg, the amiable, dreadlocked young Ferencvaros defender from Point Fortin, Trinidad, having been found unconscious on his apartment floor in September after suffering a heart attack.
Adams never lifted a trophy or even owned a car as an adult in Hungary or Trinidad and Tobago -- in fact, he spent more time in Budapest on a hospital bed than on the playing field -- yet his untimely passing prompted more than a hundred headlines in the country of his birth and the one of his death.
He first came to national prominence in his homeland when he made his senior international debut on March 19, 2008, at the tender age of 16. A strong, fearless and composed left-sided defender with decent footwork, he was still a Presentation College (San Fernando) student when then “Soca Warriors” coach Francisco Maturana thrust him in the starting lineup to face El Salvador.
Maturana, a former coach of Colombia and a South American icon, was a member of the FIFA technical committee at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup in South Korea, where Adams started all three games. And, in his first opportunity to select a local-based team, Maturana summoned Adams.
It caused a minor uproar. Adams had never played competitive senior football before and was a youth team player for local Pro League club W Connection. Critics railed that Adams’ selection was a slap in the face of the country’s professional players and an indictment against the judgment of the Connection coaching staff.
There was another point that was missed: Adams had not played competitively in almost four months. Although the Pro League was in full swing that March, the various national youth leagues had finished the previous December.
The young defender was quiet and steady in a 1-0 win on his debut against El Salvador and then, a week later, played like a man in a fierce battle away to Caribbean rivals Jamaica that ended 2-2. No sooner had the praise started than Adams picked up an injury. He never played again for Maturana, and three years passed before his next senior international cap.
Questions have been raised as to why that was the case. Was Maturana’s faith and enthusiasm in Adams a double-edged sword? Did the Colombian push the fresh-faced teenager before his time and perhaps without due consideration to the physical demands of the senior international game?
Adams just wanted to play football. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dwight Yorke, Shaka Hislop and Stern John by playing in a senior World Cup and earning a good living in Europe for himself and his family. But his rapid promotion might have contributed to his subsequent nomadic career as player.
Connection did not offer an automatic first-team place, and, having made his international bow, Adams was not prepared to wait anymore, so he went on loan to United Petrotrin in 2009. In the next five years, he represented five clubs and had an unsuccessful trial with Major League Soccer team Seattle Sounders in 2010. The death of his father, Renwick Adams, of a stroke at the age of 51 prompted the youngster to take a brief hiatus from the game, but he joined Central FC as a free agent in 2012.
Adams forced himself back into the Trinidad and Tobago senior squad alongside the likes of Stoke City forward Kenwyne Jones for the Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. But it was a spectacular disaster as the Warriors were eliminated by Guyana in their first group phase, and his career hit a new low in January 2013 when he was sacked by Central after he turned up late for one training session too many. (In his defense, car-less Adams lived almost two hours’ drive from the training ground.)
For the next six months, the defender -- whose mother, Ancilla Dick, is a domestic worker -- was unemployed. He pledged his intention to join his hometown club, Point Fortin Civic, in the next transfer window even though they played two divisions below Trinidad’s top flight.
Meanwhile, the Warriors were preparing for the CONCACAF 2013 Gold Cup and, although the national team did not have a specialist left-back, Adams was not on their radar. His immediate career outlook seemed bleak.
Still, local football agent Dion Sosa is always on the lookout for talented players without contracts and, after a few long chats, he decided the young man was worth a gamble. In July, with the aid of Dutch agent Humphry Nijman, Adams was given a trial with Eredivisie club PSV Eindhoven and played in a reserve game.
Predictably, given that the unheralded Trinidad and Tobago Pro League appeared to have given up on Adams, his stay with storied PSV did not last long. Adams’ agent claimed that PSV were impressed by his potential but felt he was not physically ready to compete for a first-team place yet. Compounding the six months away from competition, Adams also had little experience of anything but the pedestrian pace of the Trinidad league.
PSV promised to give Adams a second look in a year’s time when he was in better shape. So, Nijman took Adams to Hungarian side Ferencvaros instead in August. It was love at first sight, and coach Ricardo Moniz signed the player within a week. Within three days, Moniz gave Adams his debut, although the Ferencvaros medical staff, asked later, said Adams had a thigh strain when he joined and needed two weeks to reach full fitness.
The Budapest-based team had won 50 percent of its fixtures at the start of the 2013-14 season. With Adams in the lineup, Ferencvaros won five of its next six games, and the club directors rewarded Moniz with a contract extension while the Trinidadian became a fan favourite.
Later, Ferencvaros doctors Szelid Zsolt, Panics Gergely and Reha Gabor claimed that Adams had failed fitness tests for five of those six games and was played against their medical advice. It is uncertain whether Adams knew about any of his health concerns or whether those issues had an impact on the tragedy that followed, but, on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, he returned to his apartment in Budapest after a training session and complained to a teammate about feeling unwell. When he did not appear at practice the next morning, his colleagues went to investigate and found him unconscious. Doctors ruled that he had suffered a severe heart attack.
Ferencvaros immediately sent for Adams’ mother and agreed to pay for his older brother, Akini Adams, to come to Hungary, as well. But delays for the processing of travel documents meant the two would not arrive in Budapest until Sunday.
Adams had three emergency operations within 48 hours of his heart attack, including having a mechanical heart fitted on Thursday night, and he was in critical condition and unresponsive. Club officials feared that Dick would miss her son’s final minutes on this earth, but Adams surprised his guests and the medical staff as he gently squeezed her hand and nodded. It was his first voluntary movement since the heart attack.
The next three months were an emotional roller coaster that captivated the media, sports fans and others in both countries. Nearly 200 fans queued up in Budapest to donate blood to Adams, and thousands, including FIFA President Sepp Blatter, sent words of encouragement via social media. Adams’ former school and the Trinidad and Tobago football supporters’ website, Soca Warriors Online, gave financial support for his mother’s stay in Budapest, and Hungarian companies donated thousands of euros to the stricken player’s health care.
Some of the news was less palatable, though, including a T-shirt proceeds controversy explained by Wired868.com.
On the medical front, there was anguish in Budapest as, on Oct. 8, 2013, doctors amputated Adams’ left leg because of “circulatory problems” in what was described as another life-saving operation.
“This surgery was successful (and) the circulation of Akeem Adams is stabilised,” stated a Ferencvaros release on their official website. “But his condition is still dangerous (and) life threatening.”
On the field, Ferencvaros’ response to the tragedy was alarming. In the eight games after Adams’ hospitalisation, Ferencvaros drew four and lost three. The team’s only win came on Nov. 2, when it held an emotional pregame tribute to the Trinidadian.
At least Adams’ health seemed to be improving steadily. Doctors told him that his condition had stabilised and that he should be strong enough for a heart transplant before Christmas. He would receive a prosthetic leg while under anaesthetic and, in a perfect world, would wake up with a new heart and a new leg and promptly head home to spend the holiday season with his mother and brother.
Moniz, who visited Adams on a daily basis, advised the player to get his coaching badges and assured him of a job on his coaching staff, no matter where he was posted. Adams, who tired of his hospital confinement and his life watching mostly football reruns on television, dreamed of that new life every day and was generally upbeat. Medical staff even sanitised his apartment in anticipation of his release.
But the apparent serenity was shattered by Moniz’s stunning outburst in a postmatch news conference on Nov. 30 after a 2-1 loss to Pecsi MF that was Ferencvaros’ fourth successive home match without a win. Reporters wanted answers on the team’s slump. Instead of addressing it, Moniz blasted the medical care afforded to Adams and accused doctors of not doing enough for the player’s leg.
Within 48 hours, Ferencvaros sacked the 49-year-old Dutch manager for “the unsuccessful and completely disastrous performance of the last two months.” And the club’s doctors countered Moniz's allegations with claims that he often overruled their medical advice, fielded Adams when he was unfit and hid the medical history of the player’s family from Ferencvaros.
Neither party proved its claims, but the row created a sober backdrop for what proved to be Adams’ final month in Hungary.
The player and his family, who never received support from the Trinidad and Tobago government, were totally dependent on the medical care provided by Ferencvaros and didn't speak of Moniz’s outburst or the club’s response. The only public opinion they offered about their doctors was complimentary.
Adams never made it out of the Varosmajori Heart Clinic. His mother and brother joined him at his hospital bed for Christmas. And, on Boxing Day, he spoke to his relatives in Point Fortin through Skype and told them he had a new projected date of Feb. 4 for his transplant. Two days later, Adams suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma; the result was profuse haemorrhaging of the brain.
On the morning of Monday, Dec. 30, doctors told Dick it was time to let her son go. He was deemed to be beyond the reach of medical science. Dick agreed and signed the necessary paperwork, but, after a discussion with son Akini, made a dramatic U-turn and refused to authorise staff to pull the plug, preferring to “leave it in God’s hands.”
Adams lingered roughly four hours more, then passed away without the plug getting pulled.
“He went on his own; this was God’s call,” Adams’ uncle, Ivan Dick told reporters. “He is at peace now. We wish to thank all of those who offered their support to Akeem and his family. He touched us all in so many ways.”
Adams, who was on Trinidad and Tobago senior coach Stephen Hart’s shortlist just before his heart attack, never got the chance to achieve his dreams for club and country. But his cool yet competitive demeanour in a month-and-a-half playing stint struck a disproportionately deep chord for Ferencvaros fans. Memories of his courageous three-month battle in Budapest will live longer still. Gone but not forgotten.