The man on the other end of the phone call I have just made was speaking perfect French. I do not speak French. I froze trying to figure out what to do next. I was positive this was the number Akbar Gbajabiamila’s publicist had given me, wasn’t I? I sat in baffled silence, not daring to hang up.
Suddenly Akbar’s roar of a laugh rumbled through my cell phone. Yup, I had been punked by Akbar for over a minute. As any fan of American Ninja Warrior will tell you, Akbar’s trademark jovial, energetic outlook on life is what endears him to the crowd. I had just gotten a little personal dose of that.
But the topic of our conversation reflected the more serious, concerned side of Akbar, on a matter very close to his heart. I had called him to talk about an event he’s organizing on Sunday, August 5. Akbar was calling it “Parkour 4 Parkinson’s.” The fundraising event for the Michael J. Fox Foundation will be held at Ninja Warrior Kevin Bull’s gym, DojoBoom. Tickets to the event will let kids and their families have a day of play with Akbar and some of the Ninja Warriors from the show.
More event details are available at the bottom of this article.
Akbar’s genuine motivation and mission for this endeavor is so deeply personal, I wanted him to tell you about it in his own words.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
So, what inspired this event?
AG: One of the hardest things to do when you care about something is to raise money. We’re flooded with everything now. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. Social media, TV, everything is coming at you. I really wanted to be part of finding the cure.
As you may or may not know, my father has Parkinson’s Disease. I’ve sat in the back, obviously, dealing with whatever it takes to help my father, but never knowing how to make a change. God has blessed my family with giving me this platform. I wanted to do more than just be a talking head, a personality.
In a weird way, coming from my background with sports, my size, my height. All these things always mattered. Obviously your performance, you wanted to get paid in the NFL. Get that big contract. I said why? How will I measure my impact or my influence?
How do you create change? I thought, “Well why not use this blessing that has been given to me in the form of Ninja Warrior and try to use a derivative of it to help raise money for Parkinson’s?” Me with my alliterations and Akbar-isms thought, “I got it! Parkour for Parkinson’s.” Then we just started going from there.
We’ve got a lot of kids that are in love with Ninja Warrior. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get parents and kids on a weekend and give them an activity to do while raising money for Parkinson’s. A fun day of doing some Ninja-ish type stuff at one of what I think is the best Ninja facilities in California right now, DojoBoom.
Tell us about your family’s experience with your father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis.
AG: Late 1998, maybe 1999, my father was diagnosed. He passed out at my little brother’s football game. At the time they misdiagnosed it as a stroke.
I remember being in my first year of college. I remember my dad. Think James Earl Jones from “Coming to America.” Deep Nigerian accent, big man, 6’3”, 300 plus pounds. Just solid. If you thought of what strength looked like, that’s my dad. He really embodied it and was an example of what strength was. A hard worker, constantly grinding to provide for seven kids. I had a hard time believing that my dad had Parkinson’s, which was weird. When they said, “Yeah, your dad has Parkinson’s.” I said, “What? Dad? No. He’s got to be faking it. No way. He’s probably just tired of working. No way.” My brain just couldn’t comprehend that my dad had this disease.
I started thinking about Muhammed Ali, and I’m like, “But my dad wasn’t a boxer!” And Michael J. Fox. I think that was right around the same time that it came out that Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s. I was just confused.
I think the first time I saw it, my dad was having a hard time signing a cheque. One of my mom’s friends said, “You need to go get checked.” He kept trying to write a cheque and his hands were shaking. Then we just saw this strong man start to struggle. My father struggled. First it was with the tremoring, and then it was the realization that he had this condition. It was the effects of the condition.
Where we are today, my father has been living with my brother in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My brother, Kabeer, has been the primary caretaker of my father. We have rotations where other siblings are taking care of my dad in the house.
I think the “Ah ha” moment for us was, where [Parkinson’s patients] get these things where you freeze. I was living in Orange Country at the time and I remember my dad frozen in the hallway. It was at the house we all grew up in. My dad had it since ‘77. Thinking, “Wow, dad can’t be at the house by himself.”
So you had that struggle. All the other stuff. The medication. My dad didn’t want to take his medication. My dad is a big person and he’s having issues walking. Thank goodness he’s got two football sons. But still, it brings its own unique challenges.
With all the technology we have, I thought, “Dang, we haven’t broken through on anything?” It’s just weird, you know? We’re thankful that there have been some advancements in technology. My dad had deep brain stimulation. He hasn’t completely lost his speech. His speech has been softened. So no longer does he have the thick, intimidating Nigerian accent that used to scare us as kids. Now it’s a soft accent and you have to really intently listen to him. With the softer tone, you have to really pay attention to what he’s saying.
Both my parents spoke Yoruba, and we didn’t, and [growing up] we couldn’t figure out what they were saying. My dad will talk and I will pick it up. I learned over the years of listening to Yoruba, which we didn’t understand, or broken English, how to piece things together when my dad speaks. I only know I can do that when my kids are talking to grandpa and they go, “What did he say? What did he say?”
“Oh he said this. You guys can’t understand what he’s saying?” It’s become so common to me that I don’t realize some of the challenges that Parkinson’s has on speech.
When did you first get involved with the Fox Foundation?
AG: It was right after Jimmy Choi’s run. Michael J. Fox came on to the big screen. You’re looking at him trembling and I remember...wow. I reached out to Jimmy and it started with small, casual conversations. One conversation led to another and I just said, “You know what? I want to do something.”
When my father passed out at my little brother’s game, my other brother Abdul was like, “Have you ever thought about using your celebrity to do [something]?” And I thought, “Well, who am I? I’m just a guy. I’m nobody special.” That conversation we had a long time ago stuck in the back of my head. I’ve got to do something!
What an honor to be apart of the @michaeljfoxorg. My father has been fighting Parkinson’s Disease for 20 years. For a long time, I believed there was no hope, but because of the work of this Foundation and because of the incredible and inspiring, Michael J Fox and @jimmychoi_foxninja and all the other Team Fox members, I know TOGETHER we will find a CURE . . . . #FoxGala #michaeljfox #FoxFoundation #parkinsonsdisease #findacure @bradpaisley
But I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that Jimmy Choi was the person who put me over the top and made me say, “Okay, I’ve got to do something.” That run gave me chills. I was holding back tears. Just the way he was tremoring. His hand as he reached out for the obstacle. I can still see it in my head. He’s tremoring as he reached up and I thought of my dad, and how many times I’ve seen that. The great athlete Muhammad Ali in ‘96 in Atlanta, shaking as he’s holding up the torch. I thought, “How many times have I seen that? This is a sign of power. A will that is undeniable. I’ve got to do something.” He’s out here competing with Parkinson’s. I’ve got to do something.
What do you hope attendees will get out of the event?
AG: This is the same gym I trained in to prepare for Ninja Warrior myself. I remember the first day I walked into DojoBoom, I was like, “Jeez, you’ve got the trampolines. You’ve got the Ninja obstacles.” Some of these Ninja gyms don’t have a full set up. It’s kind of fragmented.
DojoBoom gives you the real authentic feel of Ninja Warrior, plus on the peripheral of the Ninja course, there are trampolines, a parkour area. All of these are disciplines that are necessary to be successful on Ninja Warrior. There’s a rock climbing wall. So I thought, “Man, this would be the perfect play area slash practice area, slash fundraising thing for kids to come out.
How many times do I hear, “Oh man we need Ninja Warrior for kids,” and all this other kind of stuff. So this is great. This is going to give them that opportunity. Have some of their favorite Ninjas out there to help support them. Maybe show them some tricks. I know Kevin Bull is being more than gracious with his time, his facility.
When I see him do his thing, I’m inspired when I watch by Kevin jumping, scooting. And Jessie Graff. We work out together up there and I see them doing their thing and think kids would love this! The parents would love to have their kids around these Ninja Warriors who are great role models. Great influences. They’re the epitome of staying active and healthy.
Again, all this with the purpose of raising money for Parkinson’s.
When you talk about fundraising, a lot of celebrities tend to do celebrity events. I’ve never understood why celebrities have celebrity events for celebrities to come out and that’s somehow going to draw more people in so they can be around celebrities. I was very adamant. I did not want this to be a celebrity based event where our attendance was going to be around what celebrities we were going to have.
This is just pure, genuine, fun. I guess if there are celebrities, it’s going to be the Ninjas, but that’s a part of what we’re doing. It’s not based on if I can get Hollywood A-listers. I just wanted it to be about the kids and their families. So that’s why we have it set up the way we have it. Kids, come on. If you’ve ever had the dream. If you want to learn how to do it, come on out. It will be great fun. We’ll have the whole facility to ourselves and it’s going to be cool.