Throwback Thursday: Kabeer and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila

Kabeer (left) and Akbar (right) Gbaja-Biamila are two former Aztec players who went on to have NFL careers

Peyton and Eli Manning. Tiki and Ronde Barber. Sterling and Shannon Sharpe.

Brother combinations in the NFL are rare, and these duos are some of the most famous. But even more uncommon is a pair of brothers who attended the same college before having successful NFL careers.

This is exactly what San Diego State alums Kabeer and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila did. With their impressive on-the-field resumes, the Gbaja-Biamila brothers could easily be considered the best sibling duo in school history.

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila tallied a school-record 33 sacks during his career at SDSU from 1996-1999. He was a three-time all-conference selection, and went on to have an illustrious NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. He also set the Packers’ franchise record with 74.5 career sacks in his nine-year career, passing legendary defensive end Reggie White in the process.

Akbar Gbaja-Biamila was a standout linebacker for the Aztecs from 1998-2002. He was an All-Mountain West Conference selection as a senior in 2002, when he wreaked havoc on opposing teams with current NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison. He played four seasons in the NFL, two of which with the Oakland Raiders.

Although these brothers were incredibly skilled on the field, they are much more than football players. Akbar has recently established himself in the sports broadcasting industry, while Kabeer has been actively involved with politics, churches and local school boards.

I spoke with these two brothers about their journey—from young children growing up in Crenshaw, California, to the men they are today.

Q: You grew up in a household with six brothers and one sister, was it a real competitive household?

KGB: “It was very competitive. We used to wrestle, we used to have eating competitions on Thanksgiving, all different kinds of competitions. I was the wrestling champion, I usually dominated the rest of the siblings. We were very competitive, and I think that helped us in college and in the pros.”

AGB: “Having six other siblings was very competitive. We were big WWF (World Wrestling Federation, now WWE) fans, and were to have Royal Rumbles in the house. We got into some wrestling matches and we broke walls that my dad had to patch up over and over again. I remember making belts out of tinfoil and cardboard. We all wanted to win the heavyweight championship, and Kabeer was the first one to win it. I’ll never forget that day.”

Q: You both went to Crenshaw High School, what was your high school athletic career like?

KGB: “I played both ways all through high school. I played offensive tackle, tight end, defensive end and linebacker. The coach thought I was too skinny and wanted me to play linebacker, but I begged him to give me a chance at defensive line. I just remember finding any way I could to cause havoc in the backfield. Playing offensive tackle and tight end gave me a huge advantage because I learned what was hard to block from the offensive perspective.”

AGB: “Growing up in our neighborhood with a lot of gangs, if you wore a Crenshaw basketball sweater nobody would mess with you. As a little kid, all I knew was that I wanted to play basketball for Crenshaw, and then play for the Lakers. My first girlfriend was a Spalding basketball. I would dribble the ball all the time and my life revolved around basketball. In high school, I reached a point where I had center and power forward skills but I wasn’t tall enough to play either position. The football coach begged me to play and that’s how I transitioned to football.”

Q: What was your recruiting process and what led you to eventually choose SDSU?

KGB: “The recruiting process was very interesting. I got recruited by SDSU, San Jose State, Colorado State, and Fresno State. I ended up picking SDSU because I really felt good about (defensive line) coach Ken Delgado and it was closer to home.” 

AGB: “The recruiting process was a lot of fun. I was recruited by Colorado State, Cal, Oregon, and SDSU. In the Nigerian household that I grew up in, academics were higher than anything. I wanted to go to Cal at first, and my parents really wanted me to go there too, but I ended up choosing San Diego State. I wanted to have the opportunity to play with my brother for the first time.”

Q: What did you enjoy most about your time at SDSU?

KGB: “I enjoyed my teammates, coaches, and others in the athletic department. It was a very good experience. I remember going to the Las Vegas Bowl, that was a huge accomplishment for us, we didn’t win but we made it there. Breaking the sacks record a great memory for me too.”

AGB: “I think the thing that I enjoyed the most was the camaraderie that I had with my team. I fell in love with the beauty of San Diego, the university and the teachers, I had a lot of teachers who were very personable and helped me guide me through college. I never missed a class because I really enjoyed all of them.”

Q: What was your NFL experience like?

KGB: “The NFL was a great experience. It was very cool to play for a franchise team like the Green Bay Packers. My coaches in the NFL really believed in me and helped me elevate my career to the next level. They always told me that I was just at the tip of the iceberg with my talent, and they helped me do great things. I ended up breaking Reggie White’s record for most sacks in Packers’ history, and that was a huge accomplishment for me.”

AGB: “I took a lot from the NFL experience and it was a blessing. I wasn’t a huge football fan growing up, I was more of a basketball historian. Meeting and playing with childhood idols like Jerry Rice was amazing. Who would have thought a young kid from Crenshaw would be sitting in the presence of Jerry Rice? I played with a lot of legends, guys like Tim Brown, Bill Romanowski, Dana Stubblefield, and others. I learned a lot of wisdom from those guys and that will always be a highlight for me.”

Q: What are you up to now?

KGB: “Right now I do a lot of volunteer work. I dabble in politics, and I have an interest in making a difference on the governmental level both locally and nationally. Right now though the biggest thing I’m doing is taking care of my dad, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago and he moved in with me. That has slowed me down a bit but it has been a blessing because I am able to stay home more and be there for my six kids and my wife. I volunteer at their school, Providence Academy in Green Bay. I work with the school board and I try to stay involved with the churches in the area here.”

AGB: “Towards the end of my NFL career, I started to realize that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was a part of the first class of the NFL Broadcasting Boot Camp in 2005, and I learned a lot about the business. I started doing stuff with NBC 7/39, and that was the start for me. Now, I have my first studio gig with the NFL network and I’m co-hosting a fantasy football show.”

Q: What does the phrase “Aztec for life” mean to you?

KGB: “It’s all about the black and red. I am an always an Aztec. I keep up with them as much as I can. it’s tough to catch games on television but I keep track of them on the Internet, and it’s always good to see them doing well. I am an Aztec for life no matter what, and being inducted into the Aztec Hall of Fame was very cool for me.”

AGB: “Aztec for life means you genuinely bleed red and black. If you were to cut open the flesh, you will see red and black blood. There is a certain pride that we have. When Marshall (Faulk) and I are working with the NFL Network, every opportunity we get we try to cough up the name. We find a way to talk about Ryan Lindley, Vincent Brown, Ronnie Hillman, anybody we can talk about. I’m always following the team and any opportunity I get to come to a game, I’ll be there.”

Follow Kabeer on Twitter

Follow Akbar on Twitter


By Hunter Hewitt

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Throwback Thursday: Kevin O’Connell

Former Aztec quarterback Kevin O’Connell runs with the ball vs. Arizona State in the 2007 season (Stan Lui)

From 2004-2007, Kevin O’Connell could often be found on the field at Qualcomm Stadium, gashing opposing defenses in the air and on the ground while playing quarterback for the San Diego State Aztecs.

Today, O’Connell can be found on the same field once again, only this time around, he has a new role – sideline reporter.

After spending four seasons in the NFL, O’Connell is back in familiar territory, pursuing a new career while still keeping his options open. He found himself as a free agent when the 2012 season began after three seasons with the New York Jets, one with the New England Patriots, and brief stints with the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, and San Diego Chargers.

Bouncing around in the NFL was nothing new to O’Connell, however, as he grew accustomed to the lifestyle as a child. His father worked for the government and was transferred often, which led to new homes in new locations for the family.

Originally born in Knoxville, Tenn., O’Connell moved to Middletown, N.J. with his family at a young age. Then, at the age of 10, another relocation surfaced, and he and his family jumped coast-to-coast and headed west to Carlsbad, Calif.

“I hated the idea at first, I didn’t want to go at the time,” O’Connell said. “But once I got there I loved it. The people, the environment, the ambition; I really enjoyed it all.”

O’Connell attended La Costa Canyon High School and was a standout in both basketball and football. His potential was on the gridiron, however, and he realized it quickly despite admitting basketball was his first love.

After a successful high school career, O’Connell caught the eyes of numerous college scouts. Colorado, San Diego State, and various Mountain West Conference schools all expressed interest in the athletic, 6-foot-6 quarterback. After weighing his options, it became an easy decision for O’Connell to stay in San Diego.

“It made the most sense to me to stay home,” he said. “The coaches did a great job recruiting me, and it became a no-brainer for me to come to SDSU.”

It didn’t take long for O’Connell to get on the field at SDSU. After redshirting in 2003, he saw playing time immediately as a redshirt freshman in 2004, and started the final five games of the season.

In his four years in the red and black, O’Connell made plays both through the air and on the ground. A rare dual-threat quarterback, he is arguably the best running quarterback to ever don an Aztec uniform, and he has the numbers to prove it.

O’Connell finished his career with 7,689 passing yards and 46 touchdown passes, both top-five marks in SDSU history.

But the statistics don’t stop there.

He also rushed for 1,312 yards and 19 touchdowns, both all-time records for SDSU quarterbacks.

Aside from the chart-topping numbers, O’Connell took a lot from his college years, and credits his former teammates for helping him develop as a leader.

“There was a good core group of guys there, guys like Adam Hall, Kirk Morrison, and Joe Martin,” O’Connell said. “I got to play pretty early on and that helped me get closer with the older guys. I learned things from them that really helped me as a leader when I became older.”

When it was O’Connell’s turn to become a leader, his positive attitude and work ethic rubbed off on others despite struggles with the team.

“He was very personable to everyone,” said Chargers wide receiver Vincent Brown, who was a freshman at SDSU during O’Connell’s senior year in 2007. “Even when we weren’t doing too well, he always rallied everyone and worked hard. He was a great leader.”

Following his collegiate career, O’Connell was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. After Tom Brady went down with a torn ACL early in the 2008 season, O’Connell spent the year as the backup quarterback to Matt Cassel. He became a sponge, absorbing all the knowledge he could from the two veterans.

After the 2009 season, O’Connell was picked up by the Detroit Lions, but was traded to the New York Jets shortly after. He spent three seasons with the Jets, and although he didn’t see many playing opportunities, he still took a lot from the experience.

“I’ve learned a ton from my years in NFL,” O’Connell said. “There are some things opportunity-wise I would love to have had, but it’s never going to be a perfect situation when it’s so competitive. You have to make the most of it and take the experiences, relationships and memories and apply them to the rest of your life.”

When the 2012 season was approaching, O’Connell decided to pursue a backup plan in case he was unable to catch on with a new team. He began working with KOGO Radio 600 as the sideline reporter for the SDSU broadcast team, a profession that he had been interested in for some time.

“My number one goal was always to play in the NFL, and if I wasn’t able to do that I wanted to coach or be a part of broadcasting,” O’Connell said. “In college, I became the guy that got put in front of a microphone a lot, whether it was good times or bad times. People would always tell me I had a future in broadcasting if I ever wanted to do that, and I always did.”

So far this year, O’Connell has also worked with XX Sports Radio 1090, XTRA Sports 1360, and has even made on-camera television appearances with NBC 7/39 San Diego.

But he has not hung up the football cleats just yet.

“The great thing about broadcasting is I always know my schedule so I can still work out,” he said. “I’ve been able to throw balls with some former Aztec receivers who are trying to catch on with some teams as well. The one thing that would pull me away from the broadcasting would be if an opportunity did come up to be a part of a team again.”

Some of those receivers include Demarco Sampson, Roberto Wallace, and Brett Swain, all former teammates of O’Connell’s who are currently free agents. He also regularly worked out with Brown over the summer, and has been a mentor to the second-year NFL wide receiver.

“Kevin always wants to work and stay on top of his game,” Brown said. “He will call guys up and try to get some receivers to throw to. He’s been really helpful for me since I got to the NFL. He gave me a lot advice on what to expect and how to work.”

As for what’s next, O’Connell says he hopes to establish himself in the sports broadcasting field if football doesn’t work out. He also added that if broadcasting is not filling the void of playing football, he might pursue coaching at the Division 1 level.

Thinking about the future is a bit much for O’Connell, however, as he is still trying to catch his breath after being consumed with playing football for over a decade.

“We will see, I don’t really know yet,” he said when talking about his future plans. “This is the first fall in about 15 years that I’m not playing football. I’m trying to take it one day at a time for now.

“I am so appreciative of San Diego State for allowing me to have the broadcasting opportunity this fall. I want to uplift this program and bring as much appreciation to the players and staff as I possibly can. My number one goal for now is to bring the program to the level of notoriety and interest that it deserves.”

Kevin O’Connell working as a sideline reporter in the 2012 season opener vs. Washington (Ernie Anderson/SDSU Media Relations)


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by Hunter Hewitt

GO AZTECS

Throwback Thursday: Art Preston

Art Preston has a name plate in the Aztec football locker room so no one forgets about the legacy he left at SDSU

These days, it’s no secret that there is an abundance of money in professional sports. Each year, athletes rake in millions of dollars to compete in their sport.

Because of these potential earnings, dual-sport athletes are scarce. Athletes often focus on one sport, because devoting time and energy to more than one sport can hinder chances of playing professionally.

When Art Preston was in college, however, things were different.

Salaries in professional sports were mere chump change compared to figures today, and athletes played sports for a different reason: the love of the game.

From 1949-1951, Preston was a star on the gridiron at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University).

In his three seasons on the football team, he rushed for 1,664 yards and 34 touchdowns. Even after 71 years, his touchdown total still ties for third on the all-time list of career touchdowns at SDSU.

He was also a part of one of just four undefeated teams (1966, 1968, 1969) in the history of SDSU football. In 1951, Preston helped lead his team to a 10-0-1 record and the school’s first-ever bowl victory over the University of Hawaii in the Pineapple Bowl in Honolulu, Hawaii.

After each football season, Preston’s routine was different than that of the average football player. He did not take time off to rest his body, focus on school, or start training for the next season.

Instead, he started gearing up for baseball season. And as if his success on the football field wasn’t enough, Preston was just as impressive, if not more, on the baseball diamond.

In 1951 and 1952, he led the team in batting average, runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, and stolen bases. His career batting average of .431 is the highest by any player in SDSU history.

Preston passed away in 1985, but it is clear that he left an unforgettable and incomparable legacy at SDSU. He was a member of the first-ever Aztec Hall of Fame class when he was inducted in 1988, and his name will likely remain in the record books for years to come.

Although Preston was no longer around to see the phrase come to life, he is undoubtedly an Aztec for life.

 

by Hunter Hewitt

GO AZTECS