He holds a place in fans' hearts
On a gorgeous sunny afternoon last Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey, the Golden Gopher football team throttled Rutgers 42-7 for its ninth straight victory. The Gophers are 7-0 this year, ranked No. 17 in the nation, and lead the Big Ten West.
That was the game-day story, but the story behind the scenes and between the hash marks was about 10 times more compelling.
Casey O’Brien is a redshirt sophomore for the Gophers and the third-string placeholder. The fact that he’s even on the football team is as unlikely as it is inspirational, given that he’s a four-time cancer survivor at age 20. In ninth grade he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer, and has persevered through 17 surgeries, scores of chemo treatments, and countless stitches. His left knee is now an array of metal rods and cadaver bones.
But football has been a lifeline for O’Brien, and when he graduated from Cretin Derham Hall High School, Head Coach P.J. Fleck gave him a chance to walk on for the Gophers. He’s had to juggle medical appointments with practices, weightlifting, and coursework, and he’s an Academic All-Big Ten student-athlete.
So inspirational has O’Brien been that he was asked to deliver the keynote speech at a Big Ten media-days kickoff luncheon late in the summer. The former multisport athlete knocked it out of the park.
He also was featured in a moving story on ESPN’s College GameDay program. Turns out that O’Brien is as kind-hearted as he is dedicated, making frequent visits to see kids dealing with similar plights at the Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Against Rutgers, after the Gophers scored their fourth touchdown, O’Brien trotted out onto the field and held for the extra point. The kick was good; the moment glorious. As he was being mobbed by his kicking unit you could hear other Gopher players roaring their approval, and O’Brien skipped to the sideline and into an extended, emotional embrace with Fleck.
Four days following the game, after a media session with a small gaggle of reporters, O’Brien was asked how the reality of his experience compared with how he dreamed it might be. “It was all that and more, he smiled. “Being able to go out there on that stage and do it and then being able to run over to my teammates … in front of my parents and in front of all my family watching in Minnesota, it was all that I could have imagined.”
And if it could get any sweeter, there’s this. On Monday, in part for being the holder on the Gophers’ final three point-after attempts but more likely for everything else he’s accomplished, O’Brien—now 15 months cancer-free—was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.
Update: For good measure, and for his home debut, O'Brien was the holder for the final three extra points in the Gophers' 52-10 drubbing of Maryland on Oct. 26. Next up for the 8-0 and 13th-ranked Gophers: a home date with No. 5 Penn State on Nov. 9.
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of O’Brien from Gopher Sports.