Chapter 1: All Eyes on the Gladiator
“I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So, I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” - Emo Williams
Will Jesus Help You Win?
It was November of 2007. Within minutes, I would be hoisted onto a twenty-foot platform to compete on the TV show American Gladiators hosted by Hulk Hogan. As the production team was making last-minute safety gear adjustments, one of the producers asked, “Andy, do you think you’re going to win because you’re a Christian?”
“No, I do not think I’m going to win because I’m a Christian.”
Determined to land the perfect media soundbite, he continued, “Andy, will you pray to Jesus for the strength to win?”
From a production standpoint, a brash youth minister calling upon the faith of Jesus to win a game show is great television. The questions were ridiculous, and an insult to the Christian faith.
“No, I will not ask Jesus for the strength to win. He doesn’t care whether I win or lose a game show. Therefore, I’m not going to waste His time with petty prayers. I will pray for God to be glorified. I will pray for the safety and protection of my fellow competitors. I will pray for the tenacity of the gladiators. But I will not pray for victory. In case you missed the first sound bite, let me say it again - Jesus does not have skin in this game.”
The production team was not impressed by my bold comments. A trash-talking evangelical asking Jesus for victory creates binge-worthy television. Despite their best-laid plans, however, I had zero desire to be portrayed as a polarizing Christian personality on national television. I am not ashamed of my faith, but trying to use Jesus as a secret weapon is pure ignorance. Jesus is my savior, not my four-leaf clover.
Back up a Minute
How did I get to this point? In August of 2007, I was a twenty-nine-year-old graduate student living in Pasadena, California. Two years earlier, I had left the serenity of Sun Valley, Idaho, to pursue a Master of Divinity through Fuller Seminary. Outside of class, I was working for a local catering company, hustling for tips, sleeping in bunkbeds to save money, and perfecting my craft as a stand-up comic. Becoming a competitor on American Gladiators was not even on the radar.
Then, one phone call from my sister changed the trajectory of my life.
“Andy, I just saw a commercial on NBC saying they’re holding open auditions for Last Comic Standing. You owe it to yourself to audition. This could be your big break!”
Moments after hanging up, I logged onto the NBC website. After scrolling through several links, I learned casting for the next season of Last Comic Standing would take place in the spring of 2008. With auditions on hold, my dreams of becoming a working comedian would have to wait for another couple of months. In the meantime, the production team encouraged all interested comics to submit audition videos and sign up for email updates.
Before logging off, I was sidetracked by a casting link for the New American Gladiators with Hulk Hogan. After a twenty-year hiatus, NBC was bringing spandex back to Prime Time. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. One of my favorite childhood television shows was making a comeback.
Just minutes earlier, I was an aspiring comic. Now, with a single button tap, I was registering for the chance to become a competitor on New American Gladiators. In less than twenty-four hours, NBC was holding an open casting call at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. I was certain the parking lot would be filled with hundreds of men and women with gladiator aspirations.
At the crack of dawn, I hopped into my truck to make the forty-minute drive to Venice Beach. When I arrived, I was shocked by the scene surrounding the gym. An hour before sunrise, not hundreds but thousands of aspiring gladiators were anxiously forming audition lines. The crowd was brimming with athletes of all shapes, sizes, and ability levels. The scene was reminiscent of a pack of wild gorillas who felt the need to beat their chests every few minutes to remind everyone who was still king.
I waited in line for over seven hours, making idle chit-chat with bodybuilders, personal trainers, professional athletes, and a couple of hungover college students. While waiting for their audition numbers to be called, the restless crowd told endless stories of athletic greatness. The long wait would end with a three-minute audition to impress the casting team.
“Number 1572. Number 1572.”
Finally, my number was being called. Within seconds, I grabbed the pull-up bar to start the fitness test. Running on an empty stomach, I impressed myself by pumping out twenty-five strict pull-ups in under a minute. I felt confident with my initial results until I heard that a forty-nine-year-old female Marine had cranked out forty-two!
Dropping from the bar, I defiantly blasted out fifty chest-to-floor push-ups. Rising to my feet, I sprinted to the finish line to complete the forty-yard dash. Panting for breath, I was hustled by the production team into a small tent to take a few photos and answer some questions.
A disinterested casting assistant looked down at his clipboard, “William, your application says you’ve had reconstructive surgeries on both knees to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments. These are major injuries. Do you think you'll be able to compete with other competitors who’ve never been injured as severely?”
“For the record,” I replied, “my first name is William, but everyone calls me Andy. As for my knees, they feel good. During physical therapy, I pushed my body to the limits. After tearing my ACL for the first time at nineteen, I refused to let a major injury put an end to my athletic pursuits. We all fall sometimes, but it’s how we rise to our feet that people remember.”
“Thanks, Andy. Do you have any other cliché lines you would like to share? Maybe you want to tell us you’ll give it one hundred and ten percent, or maybe that this is your Cinderella story.”
Ignoring the snide comments, I looked into the camera, waiting for the next question.
“For this installment of American Gladiators, we’re looking for individuals who are more than great athletes; we want people with great stories. Would you mind telling us the most difficult thing in your life that you’ve had to overcome?”
I thought for a moment. “At the age of six, I was labeled as mentally handicapped. I had to be removed from the traditional classroom and placed in special ed. My parents were told I would be lucky to graduate high school. Despite these labels, I did graduate. I also graduated college with honors. Now I’m working on a master's degree.”
With a deadpan expression, the casting assistant replied, “Okay, thanks for that heartwarming story. Just one more question. Andy, what do you do for a living?”
As a side note, I hate this question. Few people can truly be defined by their occupation. For example, my father wanted to be a pilot, but he didn’t have perfect eyesight so he became a mortgage lender for thirty years instead, and never enjoyed clocking in at eight a.m. every day. The job was not exciting or interesting to him, but it provided his family with safety and security. It also came with great benefits and solid pay, but home loans do not fill the dreams of five-year-old boys. Our father was a valuable employee who never missed a day of work, but his lifelong profession had little to do with his character, the young man who dreamed of soaring where angels dwell. My father is more than a banker who made a living buying and selling home loans, but even that second choice profession didn’t dim his spirit. Away from the office, he embraced life as a generous, fun-loving, adventurous storyteller.
“I’m studying to be a minister,” I finally blurted. This must have been the magic answer. Auditions for competition television shows are more than physical tests. Casting directors are searching for individuals with intriguing stories or outrageous personalities, not just elite athletes. To boost ratings, they need competitive athletes with compelling stories, because American television audiences desire more than vanilla ice cream. They’re looking for individuals with rocky road personalities with some Texas Pete Hot Sauce on the side.
What Happened Next?
Two weeks after auditioning to become a competitor on the New American Gladiators, I received a phone call from the casting directors. After auditioning 20,000 prospective athletes, they had decided I was moving on to the second round of casting. To move forward in the process, the production team needed a five-minute video depicting my life as a seminary student.
The short film captured a behind-the-scenes viewpoint of a financially challenged graduate student. It focused on the odd assortment of thrift store furniture inside our rent-controlled apartment. I dedicated a precious thirty seconds to the bunkbeds I shared with another male student. To capture the producers’ attention, I recorded moments from a New Testament Theology class, images of my wrecked Ford truck, and one painful moment stumbling over Spanish as I purchased Oreos at the local supermercado.
A month after submitting the award-winning video, forty contenders, including myself, were invited to compete for twenty-four spots on the upcoming show. At Sony Studios, located in Culver City, hopeful, modern-day gladiators were given five days to display their athletic talents and personalities. During this period, we had the opportunity to train for several events, including Hang Tough, Joust, and The Pyramid. But no amount of training could fully prepare anyone to be chased by a gladiator in front of a live television audience.
Before practicing each event, producers would say, “Competitors, do not go one hundred percent. We don’t want anyone to get hurt before we begin filming. Please keep your effort levels closer to fifty percent.”
How in the world can anyone judge fifty percent of their effort level? For competitive athletes, it’s impossible to compete with one another at fifty percent; there is an on switch and an off switch. A medium switch does not exist. Telling an athlete to hold back on the reigns is akin to telling a kindergarten student to eat half of a candy bar. Of course, the poor kid is going to devour the entire Snickers! The non-athletic production team did not understand the genetic makeup of competitive athletes.
During one of the training sessions, competitors were randomly assigned partners to practice wrestling for one of the show’s new events called Tilt - a blend of tug-of-war and wrestling while balancing on unstable platforms. Unfortunately, these platforms were not yet ready, so the production team threw some hard mats on the floor and encouraged improperly-trained competitors to use them for wrestling practice instead.
Due to a stroke of bad luck, I was tasked with wrestling a mild-mannered Mormon named Jackson. This young father of two did not carry the swagger of the other athletes, but as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Jackson was an All-American wrestler in college and one of the most incredible athletes I have ever encountered. The dude could do a standing double-backflip before it was even thought humanly possible.
Minutes after hitting the mats with Captain Backflip, I was fighting with all of my might to avoid being pinned. Action Jackson was using every skill possible to dominate the match. I, on the other hand, had zero firsthand experience with wrestling, grappling or martial arts. I was just a Bible-thumping nerd who loved snowboarding and lifting weights. From the outset, the plan went bad. I had two options - fight for my life or succumb to Jackson’s dominant wrestling techniques.
Despite being the supreme underdog, I opted to fight until the bitter end. Jackson might win, but I was determined not to fold like a lounge chair. Seconds after the match began, Jackson drove his shoulder into my chest and began working my body into a pretzel formation. To maintain any level of respect and prove I deserved to be a competitor on American Gladiators, it was imperative that I muster every ounce of strength I possessed and put up some kind of a fight.
Laying helpless on my back, Jackson began pressing his full weight into my chest with his shoulder, forcing the air out of my lungs. Tunnel vision was beginning to set in. If I didn’t fight back, this wrestling match would be over in a matter of seconds. My head was pounding like a jackhammer, and my heart was racing like a Ferrari on the Autobahn.
Moments before passing out from complete exhaustion, the production team mercifully stopped the match. My prayers were answered when a production assistant began yelling, “Alright, alright! Break it up! Break it up, you guys! I thought we told you to go fifty percent!”
I had the impulse to tell him it’s impossible to wrestle at half speed if you’re trying to win, but I bit my tongue to avoid getting booted from the show for insubordination.
As I was struggling to my feet and fighting to catch my breath, I noticed Jackson’s face was filled with pain. I wondered what was wrong. There was no way I could have hurt the guy. He dominated the match from the moment we hit the mats. He was in total control, while I flopped around like an earthworm on hot asphalt. I spent the entire match in survival mode, thinking, “Slow down your breathing. Slow it down.”
The onsite medical team gathered around Jackson to examine any injuries he may have incurred during the match. Watching the scene unfold, I began to notice a slight throbbing sensation in my right shoulder. Playing sports over the years, I have been injured numerous times. As the pain was radiating, I was certain it was nothing serious. But as my adrenaline level began to return to normal, the throbbing sensation rapidly became a debilitating pain.
A short time later, we were loaded into a production van for an emergency room field trip. After taking x-rays and meeting with doctors, it was determined that Jackson had broken his wrist. He believed the injury occurred during an attempt to finish the match with a cross-face cradle. In an effort to pin my shoulders to the mat, Jackson locked his arms around my face, and as they tightened around my jaw, I drove my legs forward, attempting a reversal, which flipped the two of us onto our backs. His wrist became trapped underneath our bodies during the flip. Jackson’s journey to become an American Gladiator was over. The humble father from Utah left the hospital with his wrist in a cast. No surgery was required, but his wrist would be immobilized for a minimum of six weeks.
Upon further examination, an emergency room doctor diagnosed my injury as a torn shoulder labrum. Without undergoing an MRI, the full extent of the damage was unknown. A doctor injected my shoulder with a cortisone shot to reduce the swelling. Then a steroid injection was delivered to jumpstart the healing process. I was told if the pain didn’t subside after a month, I should schedule a follow-up appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. As I was signing all of the paperwork and forking over money I did not have, the doctor said, “Mr. Konigsmark, it is my professional opinion that you should withdraw from competing on this television show. Your long-term health is more important than competing for money.”
Re-playing the doctor’s words, I thought to myself, “Fat chance, Bucko! This might be my only opportunity to become a gladiator.”
On the ride back to our hotel, Jackson must have noticed the guilt written across my face. His words were drenched with compassion, “You put up a great fight. It wasn’t your fault I broke my wrist. It’s just one of things that happens when you compete. When the show finally airs, I’ll tell my kids, ‘That’s the minister who broke my wrist.’”
The Final Day
On the last day of training, the remaining thirty-nine competitors and I were gathered in a room to learn our fates. Twenty-four of us would be selected to compete on the show. In addition, four people would be selected as alternates. The alternates were scheduled to remain on call if one of our fellow competitors was injured during filming. Based on rough math, eleven unfortunate finalists would be going home without receiving participation medals, orange slices, or juice boxes from the team mom.
I listened in total disbelief as my name had been omitted from the list of twelve men who were selected to compete on the show. The production team must have made a mistake. I had done everything possible to ensure a chance to compete. I did not want to be an alternate, but it was better than nothing. A few minutes later, I learned my fate. After coming this far in the casting process, I was unworthy to be an alternate. Ouch! I wasn’t even good enough to be second string.
As I was preparing to take the walk of shame home, an unexpected event happened. A couple of male competitors from New York, both named Tony, starting throwing haymakers at each other. To this day, I have no idea what they were fighting about. One minute it was, “Best pizza on the Southside is . . .” and the next it was, “Your mother makes the worst rigatoni in the Bronx.” Bada-bing, bada-boom, Tony number two was sent packing. This unceremonious exit created room for an aspiring minister and comedian to join the contestant pool as an alternate.