Gophers' Casey O’Brien on his 21st birthday: ‘I love my head coach’

Casey O'Brien and Fleck embrace after O'Brien makes his Gophers debut on Saturday after battling cancer.

University of Minnesota football player Casey O’Brien celebrated his 21st birthday on Tuesday.

That’s exactly what O’Brien wants to be known as moving forward, a football player. He’s now a five-time cancer survivor after doctors noticed a spot on one of his lungs at a routine scan during the 2019 football season. He had the spot surgically removed, and was healthy the rest of the season.

There were times when O’Brien probably didn’t know if he’d see his 21st birthday, but he did and now he hopes to be a football player again this fall after the Coronavirus pandemic hopefully passes. In one of the most emotional moments of last season, P.J. Fleck put O’Brien on the field for his Division I debut in the Gophers’ 42-7 win at Rutgers.

O’Brien was the holder for three extra point attempts in the second half, all successful. Fleck went to Twitter on Tuesday to wish O’Brien a happy birthday. As did his wife, Heather Fleck.

"Happy birthday to the strongest person I've ever met!! Thank you for inspiring so many people, Heather & I included!! Love you Casey, enjoy your birthday!!" Fleck posted on Twitter.

"Happy birthday to the toughest guy I will ever know!!" Heather Fleck posted.

O’Brien responded by saying, “I love my head coach. Thankful to play for this school! #RTB”

He also heard from Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is well known locally for his work with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. That’s where O’Brien spent much of his time in high school and early college days getting cancer treatments.

O’Brien brought a crowd to its feet and tears flowed while he talked about his cancer battle last summer at the Big Ten Football Media Days.

O'Brien still wears wrist bands on both wrists in honor of kids he knows currently battling cancer. Some are still fighting, others have passed away. He also helped lead the initiative for the team at Iowa to go on the field after the first quarter and waive to kids above Kinnick Stadium at the University of Iowa Children's Hospital.

It's become very clear in Fleck's three years at Minnesota that players have bought into his "Row the Boat" mantra. Antoine Winfield Jr., who declared for the NFL Draft after his first fully-healthy season wtih the Gophers, says Fleck is a players coach.

Under Fleck, Winfield was a consensus All-American after leading the Gophers with 88 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He had seven interceptions, was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and First Team All-Big Ten. He'll soon be on his way to the NFL.

“Just being able to be around him for the last three years, he influenced me and motivated me pretty much day in and day out because that’s just the type of person he is. He’s the real deal,” Winfield Jr. said. “A lot of people have their own judgments about him, but he’s a great guy. Being around him the last three years, he’s just a great overall person. He’s a players’ coach, and you want to play for a coach like Coach Fleck.”