Coach PJ Fleck had no doubts about signing player who's beat cancer 4 times

Combined Shape

Casey O’Brien won’t be winning the Heisman Trophy this fall.

In fact, chances are he won’t even help win a game for the University of Minnesota.

But it’s going to be hard to find a more important winner in all of college football.

O’Brien is already 4-0 in his biggest battle — the fight against cancer.

For Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, giving O’Brien a scholarship wasn’t a hard call to make.

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“He was going to be on the football team,” Fleck told Yahoo Sports. “Not because of what he’s going through but what kind of person he is.”

When O’Brien was a freshman quarterback in high school, he felt a sharp pain in his knee.

“I thought it was just overuse,” he recalls.

If only …

Doctors discovered that O’Brien was suffering from bone cancer. That meant four months of chemotherapy, a knee replacement and then another four months of chemo.

Getting through that regimen was tough enough, but six months later, doctors found spots in each of his lungs.

For a moment, O’Brien felt self-pity. “On that first day, I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to go through this again?'” he said. “That took me 24 hours. Then it’s the competitive athlete that kicks in: ‘Let’s get through this.’”

Because he needed to avoid contact, the only way for O’Brien to continue his football career was as a holder on special teams.

Even with a port in his chest and several stitches, he played for Cretin-Derham Hall High School in the state championship game.

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For two years, O’Brien was able to live a “normal” life, cancer-free, until the disease came back a couple of months ago, with another spot on his lung. Another setback.

But also another victory.

“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, yet another spot on his lung was discovered.

O’Brien will have another operation, but he plans to fill his role as the backup holder for the Gophers, second-string behind the team’s punter.

And no, if the punter suffers an injury, O’Brien won’t be assuming the punting duties.  “I don’t punt,” he said. “You don’t want to see that.”

So the fact is that Casey O’Brien may not even see the field this season, but no matter what, he’s a champion — and that’s not lost on his coach.

“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.”

Middle linebackers are known for being tough — but they’re nothing compared to this young man.

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Mike is an 11-time Michigan Emmy Award winner who has spent nearly 30 years working in sports media.
Mike has spent nearly 30 years in all aspects of sports media, including on-air, 10 at ESPN and another 10 at Fox Sports Detroit. He now works as a TV agent, and lives with his family in West Bloomfield, MI.
Sudbury, Massachusetts
11-time Michigan Emmy winner
Emerson College
Books Written
The Longest Year: One Family's Journey Of Life, Death, And Love/If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers/If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Lions
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