Casey O'Brien: 'I'm thankful, tomorrow is not promised'

It only lasted a little more than 13 minutes Friday, but University of Minnesota sophomore Casey O'Brien had a Chicago ballroom standing, clapping and many in tears by the time his speech was over.

O'Brien, a four-time cancer survivor and a redshirt sophomore with the Gophers, spoke at a luncheon as part of the Big Ten Football Media Days. The key takeaways from his speech: He's got 120 brothers on the Gophers football team who are by his side, and he's thankful for every day he's given.

O'Brien was selected to talk at the luncheon due to his captivating story of battling cancer, four times over. He watched previous speeches for guidance. They included former Michigan star Denard Robinson, who talked about his family and how he prayed to his brother, passed away, before every game he played with the Wolverines.

He saw how former Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry talk about how college football players have influence as more than just athletes. He referenced former Purdue quarterback David Blough, who talked about the life lessons that football taught him.

O'Brien sought guidance from two others with Minnesota ties: Kirk Cousins and Eric Decker. Cousins, a former Michigan State quarterback, talked about the privilege of playing football in the Big Ten. O'Brien said Cousins' speech was one that stuck out the most.

"I guess I'm not alone. More than 500,000 people have watched it on YouTube," O'Brien said.

It might have been Cold Spring native and former Gophers star Eric Decker who had the greatest impact. Decker told him, "Stay strong and never give up. You have the whole world behind you."

O'Brien's story is one that can and should give any cancer sufferer hope. He was 13 years old and entering his freshman year at Cretin-Derham Hall. He was playing football, and felt a pain in his left knee. It wouldn't go away. He saw doctors and specialists, but no answers.

With the help of his parents, he went to go see doctors with the Gophers football team. A week before Christmas in 2013, O'Brien was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer. It's the same disease that killed Purdue student Tyler Trent, who made national headlines last year after predicting the Boilermakers would upset Ohio State.

O'Brien's initial treatment was a full knee replacement, and nine long months of chemotherapy. After 18 rounds of chemo, a more than eight-hour knee surgery and 90 nights at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's hospital, he was declared cancer-free at the start of his sophomore year.

"I couldn't wait to put this all behind me and enjoy being a regular kid again," O'Brien said.

That lasted all of about six months. He learned his cancer had relapsed, and come back in both lungs. He had to have three lung surgeries, and seven months of chemotherapy.

He was determined not to let cancer be the boss.

"The circumstances I was placed in were not going to dictate my life or my behavior. I wanted to play football again and I was not going to take no for an answer," O'Brien said.

He got that chance as a high school junior, while still going through treatment. He moved from quarterback to placeholder at Cretin. He played varsity football that season, and in the first game, was the holder for every extra point in a victory.

The next morning, he went to Masonic Children's Hospital for a week of chemotherapy.

"I had no hair, was down to 130 pounds but I was back on the football field. I was back out there with my teammates doing what I loved, and helping our team win games," O'Brien said.

Fast forward to college, and PJ Fleck and the Gophers staff brought O'Brien on as a walk-on. He battled cancer twice more at Minnesota. During his first spring practices, he took chemo pills. Didn't miss a practice. Last year, he wore a specially-made shirt with a pad that protected a port on his chest where he received treatments. Didn't miss a practice.

O'Brien was declared cancer-free for the final time before the 2019 spring practices started. He's now competing for that starting holder job.

He said he may not have noticed the original knee pain if it wasn't for playing football. He also said the only call he got offering a chance to play football was from Fleck, who still regularly checks in on his physical health.

"Coach Fleck is the first person I call after all my scans. He always seems to have the right thing to say," O'Brien said.

O'Brien has now been cancer-free for more than a year. He estimates he spent more than 200 nights at the U of M Masonic Children's Hospital. The relationships built there are why he still goes back, other than standard scans and check-ups.

In his speech, he referenced the University of Iowa Children's Hospital, which now has kids who are suffering wave down to the football stadium during home games.

He also referenced six bracelets he wears on his right wrist, one for each kid he met while in the hospital.

"Some of them are so worn down that you can't even read the name, but I know who they are and who they stand for. It is not easy for me to say this but not every name on my wrist has walked out of the hospital like I have. We need to continue to improve the way that we treat and fight cancer," O'Brien said.

He's thankful for every day he gets with his family, good or bad. As O'Brien puts it, "tomorrow is not promised."