This week, I wrote about Jon Christenson and Brian Bobek, two comeback stories for the Gophers. Here’s another one, just in time for Saturday’s high school football opener:
Casey O’Brien was a freshman quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall two years ago when he started feeling sharp pain below his left knee. When that pain persisted, a series of examinations led doctors to discover that O’Brien had osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
It was tough news for O’Brien’s family, along with his extended family with the Gophers. O’Brien’s father, Dan, has been an instrumental behind-the-scenes part of Minnesota’s football program since 2008. He was the director of football operations for six years before becoming a senior associate athletics director.
Dan and his wife, Chris, had Gophers coach Jerry Kill, a cancer survivor himself, accompany them in the hospital room the day the doctor gave Casey his diagnosis.
Casey had knee replacement surgery and 24 chemo treatments. His recovery required nearly 100 days in the hospital. Chris would take the day shifts, and Dan would sleep in Casey’s hospital room overnight.
Casey had been a ball boy for the Gophers, and when he returned to the team, his role grew even bigger. Kill had Casey speak to the players about his cancer journey. For several games, he’s been in the locker room to give the players one last pep talk before they hit the field.
Casey returned to the golf course and stayed committed to extending his football career. Instead of playing quarterback now, he’s the holder for extra points and field goals. He's worked hard at perfecting that skill, getting pointers from Gophers holder Peter Mortell, the reigning Big Ten punter of the year.
The O’Brien family has had Aug. 22 circled on the calendar for months. Cretin plays its season opener against Lakeville South at the University of St. Thomas. Casey, now a 16-year-old junior, knew he'd be a part of it.
Earlier this year, he got more bad news. The cancer was back, this time in one of his lungs. He had his latest surgery Aug. 7. Three days later, he was back at Gophers practice, talking to Kill and the players.
“I would think we’ve got good examples of what toughness is,” Kill said, on the impact of Casey's visit.
Casey has continued toward his goal of playing varsity football. Now he’s ready for his debut. His doctor gave him clearance to play, and when Dan told me this news Thursday, you should have seen the pride in his eyes.
Casey will be the holder for this one game, and then he’ll be back for chemo next week. Depending on those treatments, this might be the only game this season that Casey gets to play. He’s determined to make it count.