In July of 2017, Anthony DeFranco was working full time as an audit associate at KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms. The New Jersey native was 23 at the time and had graduated from Rider University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in May 2015. Since then, you might say his career path has slightly deviated from the original plan; he’s become an American Ninja Warrior and mentor to New Jersey-based ninjas-in-training.
At Rider, the former Governor Livingston standout competed on the track and field, where he finished his collegiate career as a four-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Academic champion (indoor and outdoor pole vault and twice as a member of the 4 x 100 relay) and was named to the MAAC All-Academic team six out of six times. DeFranco was in the early stages of a potentially lucrative accounting career with one of the most prestigious firms in the business world. But he knew it wasn’t the right fit.
“Some things you just know are not for you, and sitting at a desk all day was not for me,” DeFranco told Best of NJ. “I couldn’t do it. I got this great opportunity and there was no possible way I could say no.”
The opportunity DeFranco accepted wouldn’t surprise those who know him well. When he was in high school, he watched the show Sasuke, which featured 100 competitors trying to complete a series of challenging obstacle courses.
“It was only in Japanese,’ DeFranco said of the show. “It was on G4. I would watch it and I was just like ‘I could do all this stuff. I have the perfect body type for this.’ It was all subtitles, so my dad, I remember, he would always come in and be like, ‘Turn this off. All they do is scream in Japanese.’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s fun to watch.’ And so watching that, I was always like, ‘I want to do this someday.’”
As the regional director of Ninja Training for Centercourt’s Chatham and Mt. Olive facilities, DeFranco, now 24, gets to do something like that most days. As a Ninja Warrior training instructor, a job he accepted four days after speaking to the company’s CEO and COO about their plans this past summer, he helps walk kids through the obstacles at the gyms and teaches the proper techniques to master each. He’s also accomplished a goal that he set for himself years ago, as he’s competed on Seasons 8 and 9 of American Ninja Warrior, the Americanized version of the show he watched as a teenager.
Not only did DeFranco compete on the show, he thrived on it. The New Jersey native, who was born in Livingston and played soccer and wrestled growing up in Berkeley Heights, won the outdoor pole vaulting state title as a senior at Governor Livingston and had the elite speed from his track and field career in college to navigate the American Ninja Warrior obstacles quickly. He added strength from rock climbing and upper body training and it paid off, helping DeFranco post the fastest run of the night at the Philadelphia qualifier in Season 8. He went out on the eighth obstacle in the finals round in Philly, but made it to Las Vegas, where he eventually fell on the Jumping Spider obstacle.
This past summer, DeFranco had essentially an identical result in Season 9 as he did the year before. He posted the fastest run of the night in the qualifier in Cleveland, got knocked off on the eighth obstacle in the finals round (clipped by the Nail Clipper), but still made it to Vegas where, again, he was thwarted by the Jumping Spider.
The success DeFranco has enjoyed on American Ninja Warrior is now intertwined with his occupation.
“It’s basically shaped my career at this point,” he said. “It’s created so many opportunities for me right now and I’m just trying to continue to see how far [it can go]… whether it can become a professional sport where there’s going to be big competitions and [I] could become a professional athlete off this stuff, so I’m really just riding it out to see how big the sport of Ninja can get.”
And he’s helping usher in the next wave of ninjas in his home state. Along with the Chatham and Mt. Olive facilities, Centercourt offers Ninja classes at its Lawrence location.
“Just come out, play around and have fun. That’s really what we’re about,” DeFranco said. “We’re trying to get kids into the Ninja sport just because it’s fun. I started doing it and I love it because it’s fun. There is an aspect where you do have to work hard, but swinging around like a monkey, there’s nothing else like it.
“We’re trying to get these kids to overcome their fears, become more confident in their movements and to kind of shape their personalities. We have so many kids who are loving it.”
And the training isn’t just for kids. Centercourt also offers Ninja training classes for adults.
Anthony DeFranco, who said he’s “definitely applying” to Season 10 of American Ninja Warrior, will undoubtedly take advantage of the obstacles at his disposal.
“We have Jumping Spiders in our facilities,” he said. “So you know I’m training it all year long.”