Four-Time Cancer Survivor Plays First D-1 Football Game

By now, many of you have heard about the Minnesota Golden Gophers walk-on Redshirt Sophomore Casey O’Brien. Let’s take a deeper look into Casey’s journey and the incredibly difficult obstacles he beat to realize his dream of playing for the Minnesota Gophers.

Nightmare Turned into Dream Come True

Both his father and grandfather played football for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, but Casey was always a Golden Gopher at heart. However, life was going to put up a lot of hurdles to prevent him from reaching his goals.

The First Hurdle for Casey O’Brien

At just 13 years old, Casey was faced with his first big hurdle. He was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a very rare cancer of the bones. It is a frightful diagnosis, especially for someone that young. Casey said, “When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was told that I wouldn’t play football again.” He continued, “And I knew that I needed football in my life, that had been something that had been there my whole life, and I just wasn’t ready to give it up.”

He went to his doctors and pleaded with them to let him play. He said, “I ended up talking them into letting me move from Quarterback to Placeholder. This was after nine months of chemotherapy, and an eight-and-a-half-hour knee surgery, they were like, you can’t take a hit. I was like, OK, I can either be a punter or a placeholder. I can’t punt at all, so that narrowed it down to one position.”

Another Hurdle

Unfortunately, bone cancer has a very ugly tendency to metastasize and move to other parts of the body. Sure enough, only six months later the cancer had spread to both of Casey’s lungs. An aggressive treatment plan was developed with seven months of chemotherapy and three different lung surgeries. The chemo was so bad that often, Casey would be confined to the hospital for a week at a time. Still, through all of this, he was determined to play football again.

When his junior year at Cretin-Durham Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota came around, Casey returned to playing the game he loves. At this point, his weight had dropped to 130 pounds and he had lost all of his hair. But the most important thing for Casey was that he was back with his teammates and playing against schools that had no idea of his backstory. He was back to being one of the guys and for the first time in a long time, he felt normal. That was about to change.

University of Minnesota and Another Challenge

When Casey was applying to go to college, the only school that called him was the University of Minnesota. Casey said. “Minnesota is the only school that called me, and the only school that would give me a chance to play;” He continued, “Growing up less that 15 minutes from the stadium, it was a dream come true.” He was also impressed with his new coach P.J. Fleck and liked the atmosphere his coaching techniques were creating.

Again, life threw new hurdles at Casey. His cancer returned not once, but twice. However, after coming this far and this close to his dream, he was not about to be stopped. In Spring Practice, he would take chemo pills before the practices and still never missed one.

Casey was an inspiration to his teammates and when they felt down just looking at Casey out there trying would lift them up. He was competing for the starting Placeholder job as hard as he could. He said, “Coach Fleck did not have to give me a chance to walk-on, but he did. And for that, I will forever be grateful.”

The Dream Comes True for Casey O’Brien

On Saturday, October 19th, 2019 in a Golden Gopher football game against Rutgers University, Casey O’Brien’s dream of playing in the Big Ten came true. Not only did coach P.J. Fleck welcome Casey O’Brien as a walk on, in this game he asked him to play. With the Gophers leading 21 to 0 in the fourth quarter, Casey took the field for the extra point hold.

The ball was snapped, Casey caught it, set it down, spun the laces away from the kicker, and the kick was good. Casey was lost in a sea of his teammates hugging and high fiving. His fellow Gophers knew what he had been through and were all relishing in his success.

Coach Fleck’s Hug

No one enjoyed the moment more than Coach P.J. Fleck. With tears in his eyes, Coach Fleck gave Casey a big hug and talked to him quietly for quite a while. Clearly the coach was filled with pride for what this young man had accomplished. “He’s the biggest motivator we have on this team,” said Coach Fleck, “He’s an unbelievable person. He’s been through a lot.”

Coach Fleck added, “When you think of courage, you think Casey O’Brien. When you think Row the Boat, you think our program, you think the University of Minnesota, and our state of Minnesota, you think Casey O’Brien.” Finally, he said, “No one can ever take away that he played college football, in the Big Ten.” Coach Fleck did not share what he said privately to Casey, but we’re pretty sure it was something special.

The Ultimate Role Model

Casey O’Brien has had a total knee replacement, metal rods in his femur and tibia, parts of both lungs removed, 14 surgeries, relentless chemotherapy, and he beat cancer four times. He delivered the keynote speech at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago and received a 75 second standing ovation. He was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.

In 2018, he was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team and was a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar. He has been nominated for the Courage Award which is presented by the Football Writers Association of America. The criteria to win this award includes displaying courage on or off the field, overcoming an injury, or living with hardship. The winner of the award will receive it during the Capital One Orange Bowl Week. At Sports Feel Good Stories, we think Casey O’Brien is already a winner!

— Tim Moodie 

Tim Moodie is a Freelance Writer, Product Designer, and Inventor who stopped playing football in 8th grade. But that doesn’t stop him from being a huge football fan. Every Saturday he cheers on his alma mater the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Go Gophers! Ski-U Mah!

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