Casey O'Brien beats cancer to play football: 'Somebody had to be the first'

Casey O'Brien #14 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a four-time cancer survivor, is celebrated for holding on a point after touchdown during the fourth quarter at SHI Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Minnesota defeated Rutgers 42 ((Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images))

A defining moment in the University of Minnesota football season happened Saturday at Rutgers, and it had little to do with the final score or getting a Big Ten road win.

Mohamed Ibrahim scored from six yards out, giving the Gophers a 27-0 lead with 11:25 left in regulation. On came the special teams unit, almost an afterthought when kicker Michael Lantz took the field. But this wasn’t a typical point after, far from it.

No. 14 for the Gophers took the field for the first time in his career to hold the snap for Lantz. An emotional and historic moment for redshirt sophomore Casey O’Brien. A four-time cancer survivor, O’Brien got a good snap, spun the laces out and Lantz hit the point after right down the middle.

It was 28-0, and O’Brien was mobbed by his teammates. He could officially shed the label “cancer survivor” and trade it for football player.

“I looked over to the sideline and everybody was on the field. I was worried we were going to get flagged,” O’Brien said. “I told everybody to get back, but it just shows you how much this team cares about each other. It’s a special group we got.”

And he wasn’t done. Just a few plays later, Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted a Rutgers pass and took it 33 yards for a touchdown. O’Brien, fresh off a long and emotional embrace with his head coach, went back on the field for his second hold.

He got a low snap, picked it up and placed it in time for Lantz to get it inside the right upright.

“It was incredible, that’s everything. That’s why you play the game. It was just a sweet moment just to live,” Winfield Jr. said.

O’Brien had the feeling he might see the field at Rutgers. He almost did in the Gophers’ 34-7 win over Nebraska, but the situation wasn’t right.

His story is well-chronicled. The St. Paul native was entering his freshman year at Cretin-Derham Hall, playing football and felt pain in his left knee. It wouldn’t go away and just before Christmas in 2013, O’Brien was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer.

He had 14 surgeries, spent hundreds of days at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. O’Brien battled the cancer on four separate occasions, and was declared cancer-free before the Gophers started this year’s spring practice.

O’Brien has said if he hadn’t played football, he may not have noticed the original pain in his knee. The game he loves ultimately saved his life.

After his first hold resulted in a successful point after, O’Brien went down the sideline and sought out coach PJ Fleck. The two shared a long embrace that, after being captured by cameras, went viral on social media. Fleck walked away from it wiping tears.

“Here’s a young man who was told he would never, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t and they wouldn’t allow him to play college football. He told himself, he told people around him that he would, and he did,” Fleck said. “You talk about a story of perseverance, of courage, of triumph, that’s what it’s all about. I think I’ll remember the whole journey with him from the day he walked in my office.”

He told Fleck from day one he wasn’t there for a handout. He wanted to play football, and he wanted to compete for the starting holder job.

Now, he’s a role model for kids battling cancer. He’s living proof that it can be fought, and dreams can be realized. Less than a year ago, he was battling disease. Now, he’s wearing the Maroon and Gold and playing football.

“My biggest message is if I can, then you can. Somebody just had to be the first,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien sports more than a dozen bands on his right wrist, representing kids battling cancer. Some are still alive, others aren’t. He’s gotten more since his night in the spotlight on Saturday, and will wear as many as his wrists allow.

He said it’s been a whirlwind three days since making his college football debut. He got text messages that his story made it to Good Morning America, ABC Nightly News and other national outlets.

Fleck had a spirited team meeting the night before the Gophers beat Nebraska, 34-7. He had a simple question for his players: Is it worth it? O’Brien knows his answer. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi says his energy carries over to the rest of the team.

“You talk about a guy, you know sometimes in the morning, you wake up and the alarm goes off and it’s cold and it’s rainy, you think about that guy and what he’s been through, a four-time cancer survivor. Nothing that any of us have had to go through compares to that,” Rossi said. “When a guy like that comes in with a smile on his face and a change your best attitude, he’s always rowing and always working, that inspires the other guys.”

O’Brien held three extra points Saturday, all successful kicks. It was his second hold that reminded him he’s still a football player. The snap was low, and he made it work for his kicker.

“At that point, that’s when I knew I was just back to playing football. I had done it 1,000 times in practice, to go out there and do it on the big stage was just letting myself know that I’m back to playing football,” O’Brien said.