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Co-Host of 'American Ninja Warrior' Talks Finding Your Passion, His Childhood, and Colin Kaepernick

Akbar Gbajabiamila discusses what brings people to "American Ninja Warrior," trying out the course, and his NFL predictions for the year.
Image: Akbar Oluwakemi-Idowu Gbaja-Biamila on Season 9 of American Ninja Warrior
Matt Iseman, left, and Akbar Oluwakemi-Idowu Gbaja-Biamila on Season 9 of "American Ninja Warrior."NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Akbar Oluwakemi-Idowu Gbajabiamila is a man with an impressive resume that runs longer than his name.

Gbajabiamila graduated from San Diego State University with a football scholarship, where he was named all-Mountain West Conference in his senior year. He was also involved in a school organization called Athletes For Education, where collegiate athletes worked with kids to teach them life and financial skills.

He then went on to play in the NFL for five years.

But it doesn’t end there. Gbajabiamila is now currently the co-host of American Ninja Warrior on NBC, which starts its 9th season on June 12, and is a host on NFL Network’s NFL Fantasy Live.

Akbar GbajabiamilaQuillard Inc.

American Ninja Warrior was not something that was handed to him. Gbajabiamila had to apply and send in an audition tape, just like everybody else.

“To be honest with you, out in Los Angeles, you go out and do 100 auditions and never get anything. That kind of was my case. Going back and looking at the history a bit, I know that [American Ninja Warrior] hadn’t had an African American host,” said Gbajabiamila. “March 25, 2013, I got the call and I was like, ‘Woah. Like, huh?’”

Gbajabiamila was not totally sold on the show until he arrived on set and met the Ninjas that would be competing. He believes it’s the people on the show that really resonates with those watching at home.

Related: ‘American Ninja Warrior’ inspires kids to tackle obstacle-course gyms

“When you look at the stories behind a lot of the competitors, they resemble a lot of you and me – you have people who are struggling with cancer, people who are competing with prosthetics, but people who have also taken this game and sport to another level,” said Gbajabiamila.

When asked if he had tried the obstacle course, Gbajabiamila laughed and admitted it was harder than he expected.

“This time last year, I had an opportunity to try the Warped Wall and I was showing off in front of some of my NFL friends who came by the set. I banged up my knee, and it kind of validated why [the producers] didn’t want me to do it,” Gbajabiamila admitted. “But this year, they saw that I was working out with some of the Ninjas and that I was getting kind of serious – I was getting this itch. So I tried the Quintuple Steps, the Warped Wall, and I finally did the Salmon Ladder which is an absolute beast. So I’ve got three of the iconic obstacles down. Now, of course, some of the fancier ones? Mm, no.”

Akbar GbajabiamilaQuillard Inc.

Having the physical capability is only half the battle, Gbajabiamila claims. There is a large mental aspect to it, as well.

“I think so many people look at it and go, ‘Oh, well it would be nice to think that I can do it, but maybe I can’t,’ so they talk themselves out of it,” Gbajabiamila explains. “And I say, if you think you’re beaten, you are. If you think you dare not, you won’t. If you’d like to win, but don’t think you can, it’s almost a sense that you won’t.”

Gbajabiamila was taught to be mentally strong by his parents, who emigrated from Nigeria.

“My parents allowed us to play sports, but they didn’t really get American sports. I can still hear my dad in his Nigerian accent, ‘What is all this football, basketball? Go get your education! You better go get your doctorate degree!’” joked Gbajabiamila. “They pushed education, they pushed hard work. And I’ve always used that to compensate for areas that I’ve been weak at.”

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Some studies estimate that as many as 80 percent of NFL players go broke once they retire. Taking a page from his parents’ book, Gbajabiamila said he made sure to find interests out of the NFL to pursue.

Akbar Gbaja-Biamila attends the 2017 NBCUniversal Upfront at Radio City Music Hall on May 15, 2017 in New York City.Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images

“It’s hard when you’re in the NFL culture, because they tell you, ‘Hey, you got this short opportunity to make all of this money and you need to be 100% focused.’ What ends up happening is that you go through an identity crisis and that identity crisis is, ‘Man, I’m just a football player,’” Gbajabiamila told NBCBLK. “I think identifying what your passions are outside of football and as hard as that may sound, it’s something that is needed.”

When asked about Colin Kaepernick’s situation in the NFL, Gbajabiamila said he felt the player was being mistreated in the league.

“I think it’s a travesty that he’s not playing in the NFL or hasn’t gotten picked up yet in the NFL. So I think what we’re looking at is no different than what Muhammad Ali went through when he tried to stand up for inequality,” said Gbajabiamila.

“People say, ‘Hey, look. You’re an athlete. You shouldn’t have a voice.’ And I get so irritated with that, because there’s a good group of people who believe that athletes should be athletes. Like hold on, first off, you’re more than just your occupation.”

Related: OpEd: Colin Kaepernick’s Boycott is His Right

As a former athlete, Gbajabiamila was especially frustrated that people were shutting down Kaepernick’s right to speak out.

Akbar GbajabiamilaQuillard Inc.

“You don’t see that in other industries – other CEOs can chime in, for some reason, some people like when entertainers step in. But when an athlete steps in, it’s almost like there’s this stereotype that we don’t have the mindset to be able to carry something of this magnitude,” Gbajabiamila explained. “Colin Kaepernick took the biggest sport in the game and brought attention to the inequality that was going on at the time and still continues to go on with the police brutality.”

Related: NFL Players Testify About Improving Community and Police Relations

“The other thing that needs attention is how many people that played in the NFL who didn’t really support him. And I get it, a lot of guys in that position, you get scared, because you don’t want anybody messing with your money,” Gbajabiamila continued. “There were a lot of people who didn’t want to get blackballed by their team or by the league, and so he was kind of left out and alone. I think we’re going to look back 10 years from now and people are going to be celebrating Colin Kaepernick.”

As one of the hosts on NFL Fantasy Live, Gbajabiamila had a few predictions of his own for this season.

Super Bowl Teams? “Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys.” Breakout Team? “Cleveland Browns.” And MVP of the season? “Aaron Rodgers.”

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