Casey O’Brien went to the Masonic Children’s Hospital on Monday. He wore his maroon Minnesota Gophers polo, like all of his teammates. The players were there to brighten up the days of some kids with cancer.
“It was awesome,” he says.
O’Brien actually got recognized as he walked through the halls. That happens to some of the Gophers football players, but Casey has never played in a game. No, he got recognized because he’s been there before.
He’s been there more than 200 times.
“Scans are on the first floor,” he explains. “You meet with your oncologist on the ninth. Blood tests are also on nine, where they check your platelets. If you’re there overnight, you’re on the fifth floor. I can probably draw the whole hospital.”
O’Brien knows this because he’s beaten cancer three times in five years. And he’s trying to defeat it again now.
The 19-year-old played two snaps in the Minnesota spring game last week and those should be two of the top plays of the entire season, even though there will be no viral highlights of a backup holder. It’s not often that a cancer patient with a full knee replacement and rods in his legs gets onto the field during a Division I football scrimmage.
O’Brien visited the kids at Masonic Children’s Hospital on Monday to tell them how inspiring they are. He’s pretty inspiring too.
He played football his whole life, and he planned to play high school football at Cretin-Derham Hall for former Vikings quarterback Brooks Bollinger. But when O’Brien dropped back to throw on a simple play as a freshman, he felt a sharp pain in his knee. He played through it, even though by the end of the season he could hardly jog. He wanted to try out for varsity hockey but by that point he couldn’t even skate.
“I thought it was just overuse,” he says now.
Eventually, in 2013, he got an MRI and doctors found a gray spot on the scan.
“I had no idea what it meant,” Casey says. “I asked, ‘When can I skate again?'”
His father Dan, who was associate athletic director at Minnesota at the time, also wanted to know when Casey could resume his normal routine.
It was then that the doctors became more blunt: “We’re talking about saving his leg.”
Casey had osteosarcoma. Bone cancer. He would need four months of chemotherapy, a full knee replacement, and four more months of chemo after that. His football career seemed over, at age 14.
It got worse. Six months after the end of chemo treatment, doctors found spots in both of Casey’s lungs.
“On that first day, I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to go through this again?'” he says. “That took me 24 hours. Then it’s the competitive athlete that kicks in: ‘Let’s get through this.'”
He beat the disease again. And he decided that if he couldn’t play quarterback, he could still play football. During one of the many long stays at the hospital, he batted the idea around with his dad, who was there at every turn. What position could he play where he wouldn’t get hit?
There were two choices. And really there was only one choice. “I’m a terrible kicker,” Casey jokes, “So…”
He became a holder. Then-Gophers punter Peter Mortell tutored him in the craft. And after missing all of his sophomore season, O’Brien was his team’s holder for his last two years of high school. There were times he played with a port in his chest, but he played. The team made it to the section championship and Casey played with 40 stitches in his side from lung surgery.
“It’s a section championship,” he said at the time, “I’m not missing this game.”
O’Brien wanted to play college football, and he wanted to walk on at Minnesota. But then came a coaching change and uncertainty.
P.J. Fleck did not have any uncertainty.
“He was going to be on the football team,” Fleck said. “Not because of what he’s going through but what kind of person he is.”
Casey was cancer-free for two years. Then, only a few months ago, another spot showed up in his right lung. Another setback.
And another triumph.
“Beat that one,” he says, as if he’s talking about a table tennis opponent.
“This young man had his whole chest opened up,” Fleck says. “Everything opened up. Cancer removed. Two weeks later he’s back on this football team. Acting, working, inspiring like he’d been there the whole time.”
Earlier this month, doctors found a “very tiny spot” in Casey’s left lung. He will have yet another procedure in May. So here’s a 19-year-old walk-on who will have played two snaps in a Big 10 spring game as a cancer patient. He’s had 13 surgeries since his freshman year of high school.
To the Gophers, though, this isn’t some charity case. O’Brien is the backup holder. If Minnesota’s punter goes down for any reason, Casey will be in a pretty crucial situation. (Asked if he’d have to take over kicking duties, O’Brien said, “I don’t punt. You don’t want to see that.”)
“If you ask Casey and his parents, there’s no other way he’d rather have it,” Fleck says. “Casey doesn’t fear being hit. Obviously, if he’s right out of surgery, no one is going to put him in there. But he looks at himself as a football player. If it was up to him, he’d play middle linebacker.”
Are there any trick plays in Fleck’s arsenal that might involve a fake kick? “I can’t let you in on any secrets right now,” says the former quarterback. (It’s hard to tell if O’Brien is joking here.)
Fleck’s “Row The Boat” mantra seems almost preordained for someone like O’Brien. “Whatever happens in your life, keep your oar in the water,” Casey said. “Trust what’s going on. Things are going to work out. Responsibility, Trust, and Belief.”
It’s something he can repeat to all the patients he visits at the hospital. The kids can see themselves in him, and he can see himself in them.
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