The SportsNewser Interview: Akbar Gbaja-Biamila

By Marcus Vanderberg 

Former NFL player and NBC Sports broadcaster Akbar Gbaja-Biamila went on the adventure of a lifetime in Morocco.

For five weeks, Gbaja-Biamila along with ex-teammates Robert Ortiz and Ricky Sharpe, teamed up for ABC’s Expedition Impossible.

The brainchild of Mark Burnett, the show is a hybrid of The Amazing Race and Survivor set in the Moroccan desert. Teams are competing for $50,000 and a new Ford Explorer.

SportsNewser chatted with the former linebacker about his time in Morocco and his passionate love for Oprah Winfrey.

SportsNewser: What’s this about being an Oprah Winfrey fan?

Akbar Gbaja-Biamila: I’m a huge Oprah fan.

How did that start?

It’s my infatuation with a.) greatness and b.) to become a broadcast journalist. My goal is to transition from sports to real-life stories. I like Oprah because of her interview style and the way she tries to get people to be themselves. Her stories have substance and she gives you different angels inside the world of different subjects. The ones about the panties and bra sizes … those don’t tickle me too much.

What was more challenging: Two-a-days in August or hiking through the Moroccan desert?

It’s not even close. Two-a-days don’t even stand a chance next to Expedition Impossible. The reason why is at least with two-a-days, there are breaks and you know what to expect. With this, there were a lot of elements that were new. I’ve never climbed 10,000 feet in the air. I’ve never climbed up a sand dune. It was about 600-700 yards high. I’ve never had to be in that type of weather. So there’s a lot of stuff and you’re constantly being tested. Two-a-days was more of a rehearsal to get you ready for the real thing. This was the real thing in full play. There was no pausing or stopping.

If you could select any two people to be on your Expedition Impossible dream team, who would it be?

Rocky Balboa for his work ethic and relentless pursuit. And Ray Lewis, because he’s that rah-rah, get you going type. During Expedition Impossible, you need someone who is going to motivate and uplift you because you will have your breakdown moments.

How much did your football background help your team?

It helped us a lot. We were battled tested. A lot of those guys competing were friends or co-workers. None of them have been battled tested. We know how to operate in those kind of environments. For us, it was huge. How to push through pain … even though this was a different type of pain and a different type of fatigue, we had to learn to push through it. We were competing on the brink of disaster.

What was the transition like for you from football to broadcasting?

It was difficult because for so long, you’ve been identified as an athlete. Almost my entire life, up until the point where I made the transition, I’ve only known sports. From dribbling a basketball down from my house to Audubon Middle School to Crenshaw High School, I’ve always being married to a ball. Then switching from a round ball to an oval ball and playing football. Being able to pay my way through college and having people recognize you more. You have to re-wire yourself. It’s very difficult to make that transition. Even in my first couple of years at CBS Sports, before I moved over to NBC Sports, it was hard watching the games and calling the games because I was still emotionally connected. I would make reference to the football players as if I were one of them. It took me about a year and a half before I accepted my new role.

While studying at San Diego State, did you always know you wanted to pursue broadcasting after your football career?

Absolutely. As a kid, I was watching Oprah Winfrey. Locally in Los Angeles, I was watching Jim Hill and seeing what he would do. I just always felt like it was a gift that God gave me to do – to speak to people and to be able to empathize. I think even as a bigger man, I’m probably a lot more empathetic and sympathetic to different needs and causes for people. I guess you could call me a big sensitive guy.

Have you spoke to Kirk Morrison about his new broadcasting career?

We speak all the time. He’s doing an excellent job. Kirk Morrison is going to be the next hot sports guy. He’s a savvy guy and brings a good mixture. What he’s doing while his name is still hot. He’s doing the dirty work while he’s still playing. A lot of players wait until they’re done playing before they start investing into their life after football.

Who would you consider the Oprah Winfrey of sports broadcasting?

That’s a juicy question. I have a lot of favorites. One of my favorites I love watching is James Brown of CBS. He’s just so good. If you go back to the 60 Minutes interview with Michael Vick to some of his feature pieces … if you look at the way he hosts. I’ve had several opportunities to speak with him and just his philosophies – he’s a bright guy and well rounded. The best host is the one that can make other people look good. Oprah Winfrey isn’t big because she brings attention to herself. Yes, she gets a lot of attention, but only through bringing the best out of other people. I think JB is really good because he brings the best out of his panelists, his analysts, the people that he’s interviewing and he understands the business.