2015 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Dan O’Brien, Minnesota

Each of the six finalists for the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2015 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page. The winner will be announced February 1.


University: University of Minnesota

Vitals: Senior Associate Athletic Director/Football

Quick Hits: In 2014, the former defensive back from the University of St. Thomas was promoted to his current position. Prior to that he served as the Associate Athletics Director for Football (one year) and Director of Football Operations (six years). … Came to Minnesota after six years as the Director of Athletics at Hamline University in St. Paul. … Earned All-Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors as a player in the mid-1980s. … Married to Chris with a daughter, Brittany, and two sons, Casey and Shay.

Playing the game and position he loved, Casey O’Brien had it pretty good as a high school freshman quarterback. Then gradually the pain in his knee would get worse as he planted to throw the ball. Eventually he would tell his dad, Dan O’Brien, that it felt like “somebody stabbed my knee with a knife.” The pain was a rare form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma. No matter what was required of him, Dan made sure he was there every night with his son during a nearly 100-day stay in the hospital for surgery and chemotherapy.


As the director of football operations when Golden Gophers football coach, Jerry Kill, was hired in 2010, O’Brien and coach Kill have formed a close relationship during these few years together.

At practice together getting ready for the Texas Bowl during the 2013 season, the doctors figured it would be a good idea to have Coach Kill in the room when the doctors informed the O’Brien family that Casey had osteosarcoma.

If it has not been for the severe pain he felt in his knee playing football, it could have been a lot worse. Osteosarcoma is cancer that spreads rapidly. Because of the pain he was experiencing, the O’Brien’s were lucky. Casey’s cancer was in the early stages an early detection usually means a greater chance of survival and less chance of it returning.


The treatment plan for Casey O’Brien would including a nearly 100-day stay in the hospital, seven hours of surgery to remove the cancer and a complete knee replacement and 24 rounds of chemotherapy.

And the O’Brien’s didn’t want to leave their son alone. So mom, Chris, took the day shift and Dan was on duty at night. Even when his job required him to travel out of town, he would make it a day trip and fly back home to be with his son.

He might never play football again, but the game is still a big part of his life. This past season Casey served as a ball boy on the sidelines, was invited to break the team down by Coach Kill and went to the 2015 Citrus Bowl in Florida.


“I’ve never seen a family handle a tougher situation. And Dan would fly to Chicago for a Big Ten event and would want to be with his son. [He’d] fly all the way back, stay on the couch with his son and then turn around and fly back to Chicago.” -Minnesota coach Jerry Kill.

“At some points it just seemed like the days would never end. But now thinking back, in some ways it seems like it went by pretty fast.” – Casey O’Brien

“When you’re in these situations, when you wake up every single day you get a chance to choose what kind of attitude you’re going to have that day. We learned a lot about Casey.” – Dan O’Brien

Vote for the 2015 Rare Disease Champion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s