Casey O’Brien is a twenty-year old man you have likely never heard of. He’s a redshirt sophomore at the University of Minnesota (a collegiate athlete in his second year of eligibility). Casey plays football under head coach P.J. Fleck for the Golden Gophers, and his only action on the gridiron has been for a few extra point attempts. Yet his story is quite remarkable. He’s a man who’s having an impact.
When Casey was thirteen, a freshman at Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul, his life revolved around sports. He was a quarterback on the football team when he began experiencing intense pain in his left knee for no apparent reason.
Several doctors checked out Casey’s knee and none could identify the problem. His grandfather told him that if he chose to play football, he could expect that his knees would always ache. But Casey knew his body and knew his pain was more than the typical football grind.
His parents took him to the University of Minnesota Children’s Masonic Hospital for an examination. There, he was diagnosed with a very serious disease, osteosarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer. Doctors removed a softball size tumor from his knee, removed all the cartilage and replaced his knee. They said his football career was over.
But Casey refused to quit. He had to get back on that football field. He said, “Cancer has taken over. I want my life back. I want to play football again.” And he created a plan to resume playing football.
He completed his chemotherapy. He conditioned himself and worked tirelessly. Acknowledging his quarterbacking days were behind him, he switched positions to holder. Casey created a declaration, a visual commitment of his pledge to get back on the football field. This was his impact declaration, a simple hand painted sign he posted in his bedroom. It read:
“Wake up! Kickass! Repeat!”
In 2015, Casey’s junior year of high school, the cancer came back, this time with spots on both lungs. He underwent more surgeries and more chemo. Casey battled back and refused to quit. In his junior year, he overcame a third bout of cancer. Eight days after a long surgery, sixty stitches in his lung and two broken ribs, Casey played in a sectional tournament game as holder. The next day, he went to chemotherapy.
Fast forward to 2017. Fourteen surgeries and several treatments of chemotherapy later, Casey had graduated high school and enrolled at Minnesota, the only FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA) team in the country that gave him a medical clearance. Coach Fleck gave Casey a shot. Casey told Coach Fleck, “I came here to play, not to stand on the sideline.”
In January 2018, the cancer came back a fourth time. Casey had lung surgery, but didn’t miss a single spring practice in March. Casey beat cancer again. All told, since 2013, Casey spent three hundred nights at the University of Minnesota Children’s Masonic Hospital. Today, he spends his days there as a visitor, and he offers the young patients and their families a reminder of what is possible. He says to listen to the doctors and staff because they are the people who will carry you through. He tells them to never give up hope. In Casey’s words, “Never give up!”
Casey shares his story, that devastating news, the circumstances he was placed in—these things were not going to dictate his life and his behavior. He wanted to play football again and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
On July 19, 2019, Casey delivered the keynote speech at the Big 10 Football Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago. He shared the memory of the call from his childhood hero, former Gopher and NFL great Eric Decker, when he had learned of Casey’s cancer challenge in 2015. Decker told him, “Stay strong and never give up. You have the whole world behind you.” It reminded Casey that simple words can be the most encouraging.[i]
Competing for a starting job behind two redshirt seniors, Casey got his chance during the 2019 season. He debuted on October 19, when he held two extra points in the Gophers victory at Rutgers. As Coach Fleck described Casey to the team in presenting the game ball that afternoon in the victorious locker room, “We have a living angel with us, men. He has played Big 10 football, something no one can take away from him. He’s defeated cancer four times. He’s rowing the boat with us. That’s Casey O’Brien.”[ii]
On November 25, Casey posted on Instagram that he needed surgery for a spot on one of his lungs. He had the surgery, and he is currently undergoing treatment. His prognosis is good. It looks like Casey has beaten cancer the fifth time. In Atlanta on December 12, Casey was awarded the Disney Spirit Award, live on ESPN, presented annually to college football’s most inspirational player.[iii]
While not cleared medically to fly, Casey and his family made the long car trip to Orlando where they watched the Gophers beat Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Watch for Casey to be back for the 2020-2021 season. Who would bet against him? He’ll never quit. As we know, he’ll “Wake up! Kickass! Repeat!” while he encourages others stricken with cancer and other adversities to do the same and never give up!
Now it’s June 11 and I’ve reconnected with Casey. I ask him how he’s fared since our last discussion, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Casey says he’s feeling great. He’s had to lay low during the virus, finishing up the spring semester via distant learning at his parents’ home, when the university suspended in-person classes in mid-March.
Casey has fully recovered from November’s surgery and has been working out on his own. The strength and conditioning coaching staff sent each player a list of bodyweight exercises to be done so they are in shape once practice begins. Casey says he’s excited to report back to the U on June 12th to see his teammates when Gophers football players begin their voluntary workouts.
He said, “The week of June 15, we’ll all get tested for COVID-19. Assuming those go well, we’re able to start our workouts by position groups. That’s exciting to get back with the guys. Then, we will begin practices with the coaches in July, so we’re looking forward to that.”
I asked him how the team has reacted since the George Floyd murder. Casey replied, “We have had team Zoom calls. Our guys have talked about what they are feeling. We are supporting each other and listening. Hearing what life is like from our African American brothers. Letting them have the floor, supporting them and listening to their experiences.”
He added, “Several of our players have participated in the peaceful protests, to show their support of George Floyd, the community and the need to address systemic racism and reforms of the criminal justice system in Minnesota and the US.”
Knowing that he was be unable to volunteer at Children’s Masonic Hospital in person, as he had before the pandemic struck in mid-March, I asked Casey how his volunteer work has changed since COVID.
He replied, “I have been in contact with a lot of kids and their families who are at the hospital using Facetime. Their policy is that if you are over 18, you are considered an adult and no one is allowed to visit you, due to their COVID-19 policy. For children under 18, they are allowed one parent to visit. So, it is very important to connect with kids to keep their spirits up. I think about how much harder it would have been for me. There were times when I was in the hospital for a full week or longer. I’d have somebody visiting with me every single day, a parent or a brother or sister, or cousin. It made the time go more quickly. Now, other than the one parent, you’ve only got Facetime for the visits.”
He added, “People have been reaching out to me on social media and I’ve gotten to speak with a number of families and sick kids. I just Zoomed with a family in Iowa last Friday. There’s a family in Illinois with a sick child who has a 5-K fundraiser coming up that I’m trying to support them on. I’m meeting people virtually. I keep a close eye for direct messages I receive on Twitter so I can respond to those folks.”
Casey continues to make an impact during the pandemic with his support of others who are going through cancer. As one who knows the process too well, he’s an example of perseverance, courage, and encouragement for patients and families alike. Looking forward to the Gophers upcoming season and school reopening, Casey O’Brien continues to “Wake Up! Kickass! Repeat!” He will never quit.
[i] “O’Brien Delivers Keynote Speech at Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon,” University of Minnesota Athletics, July 7, 2019,
[ii] “4-time cancer survivor sees dream come true, taking field for Minnesota football,” Enjoli Francis and Eric Noll, ABC News, October 21, 2019.
[iii] “Gophers placeholder Casey O’Brien shares positive news on his cancer fight,” Andy Greder, Twincities.com, December 12, 2019