Casey O’Brien walks on at Minnesota after persevering through cancer

O’Brien earned a preferred walk-on from the Gophers.

Casey OBrien poses for a portrait outside TCF Bank Stadium on Monday, May 1, 2017. After having recovered from cancer, OBrien has committed to playing for the Gophers.

Image by Chris Dang

Casey O’Brien poses for a portrait outside TCF Bank Stadium on Monday, May 1, 2017. After having recovered from cancer, O’Brien has committed to playing for the Gophers.

by Jack White

Casey O’Brien’s life changed forever during his freshman year of football at Cretin-Derham Hall.

In 2013, O’Brien was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that prevented him from finishing the season.

This year, O’Brien reached a goal he set for himself when he was younger — earning a spot on the Gophers football team.

“I always wanted to play for the hometown school,” O’Brien said. “I grew up going to Gopher games and watching Gopher games.”

When O’Brien first received news of his diagnosis, the Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders football team was there for support. His freshman teammates were the first to visit him in the hospital, and Cretin-Derham Hall’s varsity captains paid a visit the night before high school began.

Quarterback Max Jackson was one of those captains.

“Obviously, it was super devastating to hear,” Jackson said. “He was such a vital part of our community, it just seemed right [to visit].”

O’Brien joined his teammates on the field two years later. He played in Raiders’ games as a place holder for the varsity team, even though his cancer had returned during his junior season. He played around half of the games his junior year and all of them his senior year with Cretin-Derham.

The start of something new

Doctors told O’Brien he would never play contact sports again.

That’s when he made the decision to play golf.

“He picked it up and ended up making varsity,” said Dan O’Brien, Casey O’Brien’s father. “He ended up being their No. 1 golfer toward the end of the [his senior] year.”

Casey O’Brien hadn’t played golf competitively until his junior season.

He earned All-Conference honorable mention accolades with a 79 stroke average for the Raiders this season.

O’Brien lost in the sectional tournament this year to conclude his golf and high school sports career. Despite having to learn a new sport and enduring chemotherapy, he still managed to play sports competitively three years at Cretin-Derham Hall.

Why O’Brien chose Minnesota

O’Brien said he talked to head coach P.J. Fleck on several occasions. He only attended a couple of Fleck’s practices prior to making his college decision.

“The one word that comes to mind is energy,” O’Brien said. “Everywhere he goes, it’s like a small tornado. It’s rubbing off on the players.”

The Raiders went 7-3 in O’Brien’s final season with the team. Cretin-Derham Hall was No. 4 in its section under first-year head coach Brooks Bollinger. O’Brien said he’s found commonalities between the two head coaches.

“[Bollinger] kind of brought in a new wave of energy, similar to coach Fleck,” O’Brien said. “[He] kind of brought a college football atmosphere [to Cretin-Derham].”

O’Brien also liked the Gophers because of a family connection.

O’Brien’s brother, Shay O’Brien, currently attends the University as a rising sophomore.

His father, Dan O’Brien, used to work for the Gophers as an associate athletics director.

Casey O’Brien went through freshman orientation last week and started workouts with the Gophers Monday.

“It was emotional,” Dan O’Brien said. “We didn’t know we would ever get to that point… [It was] a lot easier on him than it was on his mom and dad.”

In the fall of 2013, Casey O’Brien first received the news that he might not be able to play football ever again. This fall, he will jog onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we were hoping for, and fortunately, that’s what happened,” Dan O’Brien said.