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Former Gopher Casey O’Brien Vows to Keep Changing Lives

01/22/2021, 10:15am CST
By Daniel House

Casey O’Brien froze as he walked on stage to accept the Minnesota Football Honors Courage Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation. He glanced around the room and saw all of the state's top high school, college and professional football personalities. O'Brien had no idea he was about to change even more lives.

"At that point, I thought I had made it and it kind of grew from there. But, you know, that was kind of the first stepping stone of getting on a stage in front of people and getting to share my story a little bit,” O’Brien said. "To be in a room like that and have the whole room get to hear my story was something that I was really proud of.”

On that night in 2016, everyone saw the life-changing impact football can have. O’Brien, a 13-year-old freshman quarterback for Cretin Derham-Hall, dropped back to pass and felt pain in his leg. After going through tests, doctors found a softball-sized tumor on the inside of Casey's knee. O’Brien was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He underwent major reconstructive leg surgery and defeated cancer for the first time.

Then, during his sixth-month scan, doctors found spots in both of his lungs. O'Brien underwent 10 surgeries in two years, but never gave up on one of his deepest loves — football. O’Brien used the sport to stay motivated during major surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. He worked with his doctors and found a way to get back on the field.

"I kind of had the idea of, hey, I want to take my life back here and I want to figure out a way to get back on the football field,” O’Brien said. “The options came down to being a placeholder or being a punter. I couldn’t really do much in terms of kicking, so I figured I had to be a holder.”

Months later, O'Brien returned to the field. He strapped on his shoulder pads over his chemotherapy port and soaked in every moment. As O’Brien sprinted onto the field for a game against Lakeville South, energy reverberated throughout his body. He caught the football, placed the laces out and watched it soar through the uprights. Despite all of the chemotherapy treatments O’Brien was experiencing, nobody could take away the feeling of Friday nights under the lights.

"That next morning I checked in for chemo and had five days straight of chemotherapy and then had two weeks off where I was supposed to rest and recover,” O’Brien said. “Those two weeks off, most people would lay around and things like that, but I went and played those two Friday nights as a varsity holder.”

The video feature of O’Brien’s story captivated everyone at the Minnesota Football Honors show. After it ended, Casey had an opportunity to share his inspiring message with the entire Minnesota football community. It was his first time doing so in front of a big crowd.

"I was nervous and I didn't really think on my toes very much. But, you know, I was able to get the crowd to laugh, and from there, it loosened up a little bit,” O’Brien said. "I remember that being kind of the first time when I was in the center of a room and I wasn't necessarily comfortable with it. But, you know, since then I've had more chances and more opportunities to do it and it's something that I enjoyed.”

Once the show wrapped up, Vikings players, coaches and executives found O’Brien. Casey remembered being star-struck when he had an opportunity to talk with stars from his favorite football team.

“Many people from the organization were in the crowd, and after they had heard my story, they had asked if I would come out to practice.” O’Brien said.

A Day with the Vikings

Casey eventually attended practice and was escorted to the middle of the field by Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. He wanted to make sure the team heard O’Brien’s story.

“Coach Zimmer called me out there and shared a little bit about my story. Then, he asked me to break the team down,” O’Brien said. "That was a little bit nerve-racking, but Teddy Bridgewater was the quarterback at the time and he made me feel really, really comfortable. He said how much they looked up to me. I’m a big Teddy fan because of that day.”

The Beginning of a Dream

Little did O'Brien know, a night at the Minnesota Football Honors show was just the beginning of his inspiring story.

Once Casey graduated from high school, he did not want his football career to end. The game was just too important to him. O’Brien reached out to several Division 1 programs, but many of them would not medically clear him to play. Only one school would — P.J. Fleck and the hometown Gophers.

“The doctors at the U of M cleared me to play. Coach Fleck told me, 'if the chance comes, I'm gonna play you if you're the best guy we got,'” O’Brien said. "So I got that chance at the University of Minnesota and I committed right there."

After his first freshman season, Casey’s cancer returned for a third time. Again, he did not let it stop him from being on the football field. O’Brien attended every practice he could while undergoing two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy.

"I was doing chemo pills while going to spring ball practice. I had a bottle of chemo pills in my locker at the complex. Just some crazy stuff like that where I was just doing anything that I could to be able to still go play,” O’Brien said. "It was something that kept me going. And it kept me motivated that I could be around those guys, and I could get the support and energy from them because I didn't always have it myself.”

Friends for Life

O’Brien beat cancer again and kept inspiring his team. He was the keynote speaker at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon and used his platform to influence people across the world. Casey’s impact extended beyond speeches and appearances. He wanted to be a role model for patients who are going through a similar experience at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. O’Brien developed relationships with many patients like Megan Wagner, Braxton Battaglia, Jace Trettin and others. Casey said those connections will last a lifetime.

"To get to be a part of lives like Megan or Braxton, who I've got to be really close to at the hospital over there, you know, those girls, they inspire me as much as I inspire them because they are three or four years younger than I was when I was first going through everything that I had,” O’Brien said. “They're tougher than heck. So being able to be involved in their lives is something that is special to me. And I know that we're gonna be friends for a long, long time.”

During games, O’Brien represented many of those patients by wearing wristbands with their names inscribed on them. Casey eventually received wristbands from all over the world and wore them proudly each Saturday.

"I feel like when I go out there on Saturdays and people see their wrist band on my wrist, that I'm carrying a lot more than just me on the field. I’m representing a lot of people in the world of cancer and a lot of people who are going through some hard things,” O’Brien said. "So for them to get to watch me on TV and see them represented on the field is just something that is really, really cool to me and something that I won't ever forget.”

“It Was Worth It”

Children from across the globe saw Casey overcome challenges to reach his dream. In 2019, Casey made his college football debut during a 42-7 win over Rutgers. He traveled with the team and waited to see if he would have an opportunity. Late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota reached the red zone. As the Gophers’ specialists began to warm up, starting holder Jacobs Herbers ran over to Casey.

“You maybe want to grab one here, just in case something crazy happens,” Herbers told him.

O’Brien took a practice snap and watched running back Mohamed Ibrahim plunge into the end zone for a six-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1. Seconds later, head coach P.J. Fleck turned to Casey and said: “You're in.”

O’Brien doesn’t remember much after that moment. Everything was a blur.

"I kind of blacked out a little bit when I look back on it. I got out there and I really just wanted to enjoy the moment because I worked so hard and had been through so much to get there. I wanted to make sure that I took it all in,” O’Brien said.

Casey got the snap down and watched magic happen. The stadium fell silent as the ball soared through the crisp New Jersey air. Once Michael Lantz’s kick cleared the uprights, O’Brien's teammates were ready to celebrate. Casey was mobbed by Gophers players and coaches after the extra point. The Gophers’ holder jogged up the sideline to find his head coach. P.J. Fleck was ready for the hug of a lifetime.

“One of our big themes for last year was, 'is it worth it?' Is it is it worth it for you to give up whatever you need to give up for us to have the season that we want to have?” O’Brien said. “So when I got to sideline, the biggest thing I said to him, is that it's worth it. Everything that I've been through has been worth it to play in a Big Ten football game.”

O’Brien’s special moment touched every single part of the globe. He was featured on Good Morning America, ESPN’s College GameDay and many other national outlets. O’Brien used all of the media coverage to impact others during the Gophers’ historic 2019 season.

Even as O’Brien faced another challenge late last year, he kept fighting. Just days before Minnesota’s game against No. 13 Wisconsin, doctors found a spot in Casey’s lung that required surgery. Despite the news, O’Brien once again did not let cancer stand in the way of football or his teammates.

"I had surgery on the Wednesday before Wisconsin and I was supposed to be in the hospital for four days, but I was out of the hospital on Friday and at the stadium on Saturday,” O’Brien said. “It was just another moment where I just need to be around my team and be around those guys that had carried me through everything I've been through. That was a huge game for our team and I didn't want to miss it.”

O’Brien recovered, suited up for the Outback Bowl and closed out the season with his teammates. However, when he returned to Minneapolis, doctors found another spot in his lung. O’Brien went through surgery and six months of chemotherapy. After undergoing treatments, Casey has now been cancer-free for nine months.

Writing the Next Chapter

O'Brien, a five-time cancer survivor, recently announced he is retiring from football. While playing for the Gophers and undergoing treatment, Casey graduated in 3.5 years with a finance degree from the Carlson School of Management. O’Brien is set to begin a career in financial planning with RBC Wealth Management.

He is also launching a $1 million fundraising initiative for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. In the coming weeks, Casey will be sharing more details, including how fans can help raise money. O’Brien spent extensive time receiving infusions and treatments on the ninth floor of the hospital. Casey hopes the money he raises can be used to renovate that area of the building.

“I’m going to sit down with probably six or seven different kids who have been going through treatment on that floor or are maybe starting treatment on that floor. And I'm going to say, create a list of everything that you want to have in each of these rooms,” O’Brien said. “Whether it's bigger windows to get more sunlight, whether it’s an Xbox or PlayStation, books, puzzles, different board games, you know, whatever it is that will make this thing a little bit easier for you or make the stay a little bit more enjoyable.”

As he enters a new chapter of his life, O’Brien plans to keep lifting others up. He tells anyone facing challenges to stay positive and find a passion.

"No matter what it is that you're going through, find a way to stay positive and find something that motivates you. For me, it is football. For somebody else, it could be painting, it could be going on bike rides, whatever it is,” O’Brien said. "Keep yourself positive and motivated so that you can get back to doing what you love.”

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