TAMPA, FLA. – Toddler Elias McNeal gazed up at Casey O’Brien as the Gophers holder visited him in his room at Tampa General Hospital.
The little boy — whose family moved from Minneapolis to the Tampa area about a decade ago — was in the hospital with a bone infection, awaiting an MRI. But when a group of Gophers and Auburn players rumbled through the hallway outside his room, his grandmother leaned out the door to shout “Go Gophers!”
That caught O’Brien’s attention, as well as that of receiver Seth Green and linebacker Thomas Barber. The three ended up lingering in McNeal’s room, signing posters and snapping selfies with the little boy, decked out in his new Gophers T-shirt and hat.
O’Brien sharing that moment with a young fan is a bit of a miracle. One that has now happened five times.
The sophomore missed the Gophers’ last regular-season game after having surgery to remove a cancerous spot from his lungs. O’Brien has battled osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, since high school and has undergone several surgeries and treatments for recurrences.
“Obviously, it’s not what you want to hear,” O’Brien said Friday. “But I’ve heard four times before. And I’ve beat it four times before. It’s just kind of something you’ve got to take with you and take a second to be sad, but then you’ve got to go back to being yourself because I know that I have a lot of people looking up to me, and I don’t want to let them down.”
O’Brien said doctors removed all of the cancer in the most recent surgery, so he won’t need any more treatment beyond his usual scans every three months.
“He’s got a great attitude about his entire situation, always has, always will,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Dec. 8. “He’s just, he’s Casey. You can give him every adjective known to man in terms of being the toughest young man you’ve ever met or his spirit or his will. He fits every bill. He’s a champion, champion in life, and he’s going to keep doing it.”
O’Brien learned the Monday of the Nov. 30 Wisconsin game he would need surgery and told Fleck and the team that day. He had surgery that Wednesday. But he still popped up at the game Saturday, greeting teammates during warm-ups and in the locker room.
“It was important for me because I feel the best when I’m around my teammates, but I think it was also important for me to show my teammates that I was fine,” O’Brien said. “… I was going to be there for them just like they were there for me.”
O’Brien’s story has inspired more than just his Gophers teammates. His speech at the Big Ten Media Days Kickoff Luncheon in July garnered him the conference’s admiration, while an ESPN “College GameDay” feature during the season took his story to the national level. He and his family drove 16 hours to Atlanta this month to accept the Disney Spirit Award on ESPN; doctors didn’t clear him to fly until Monday.
O’Brien said his Instagram direct message inbox includes hundreds of messages, from those in places such as Germany, China and the United Kingdom reaching out after hearing about how he turned a full knee replacement that could have ended his football career into being a Gophers walk-on who made his collegiate debut this season. He is working on responding to every one of them.
“It’s definitely a lesson that everybody can learn from,” sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said Nov. 26. “And I’ve learned so much from him personally.”
At the hospital Friday, with the Gophers and Auburn in town ahead of Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, O’Brien met several patients, asking them what presents they received for Christmas and giving them fist bumps while convincing them to cheer for the Gophers instead of the Tigers.
O’Brien knows what it’s like to be a young patient, so he works hard during visits to take kids’ minds off their illnesses. And he is just grateful to extend his reach beyond his home state.
“It’s unbelievable. How often do you get a chance to go somewhere across the country and really tell your story to a bunch of kids here?” O’Brien said. “It’s just lucky. It’s pretty cool.”