Each of the finalists for the 2018 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2018 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page. The winner will be announced Tuesday, January 9th.
University: University of Minnesota
Vitals: 6-1, 180-pound freshman holder
Quick Hits: Was a standout quarterback as a freshman in high school before being diagnosed with the rare disease osteosarcoma. Also played hockey. Could not play football as a quarterback because of his rare disease, but found his way back to the field his junior as a holder and played his final two seasons. … Took up golf after his diagnosis and was named all conference his senior year (2017) with a scoring average of 79. … Managed his high school hockey team for three years since he couldn’t play. … Won the Minnesota Football Honors Courage Award in 2016. … Walked on the Minnesota Gophers football team as a freshman and earned a spot on the 2017 roster.
INSIDE THE STORY
When you spend 165 nights in the hospital over the course of 17 months you learn something about yourself.
Sports was all O’Brien knew. He played football, lacrosse, hockey and track heading into his freshman year of high school. But it was his abilities as a quarterback that made him a potential elite athlete. And he loved football more than any other sport.
His diagnosis of osteosarcoma after his freshman season led to a full knee replacement that appeared to put playing football out of the equation.
All those days and nights in the hospital to think, and a drive and passion to keep sports and football a part of his life going forward, served O’Brien well in the long run.
“My dad and I were sitting in the hospital room one night and we were talking about what positions I could play where I couldn’t get hit,” O’Brien said. “Punter, kicker or holder is what we came up with. I can’t kick very well, so it had to be holder.”
Despite a double bout with his rare disease – it spread to his lungs after his initial treatment protocol to his knee – O’Brien was committed to returning to the field as a holder.
While enduring ongoing chemotherapy treatment, O’Brien played for Cretin-Derham Hall High School as a holder despite being only 115 pounds and bald. His playing schedule was two weeks on and week off to mirror his treatment schedule.
A late-night plan hatched in a hospital bed played out for two seasons at Cretin-Derham Hall High School and has led to the University of Minnesota for a second run.
THE RARE JOURNEY
There was a nagging soreness in his left knee that O’Brien figured he could play through and address after the season. He was the quarterback, and he wasn’t hurt. So he played.
But the pain would not go away and his father, Dan, was concerned. A series of x-rays and tests didn’t reveal anything, so O’Brien charged forward and went into high school hockey tryouts. Only problem was he could no longer skate well because of the lingering pain in his knee.
Another round of tests, including an MRI, revealed the deeper problem. O’Brien, who remembers that Friday vividly, had the rare disease osteosarcoma. By Monday he had the first of what would be become 10 surgeries.
More than five months worth of nights in the hospital over an 18-month period, all those surgeries (including a full knee replacement), chemotherapy, radiation, setbacks, one step forward followed by two steps back.
For nearly two years O’Brien rode the rollercoaster of being diagnosed with a rare disease.
“The worst of it all, after the knee replacement surgery, I only really had a month to recover before I started chemo treatments again,” O’Brien said “I had full knee replacement and they had to break other bones to make it work and then going back through chemo again right after that … yeah that was really tough physically.”
O’Brien called it “the grind” for his life.
WHAT THEY SAID
“I remember sitting in my parents bedroom one night a week after I found out. We were told I would be lucky to walk without a limp the rest of my life and I would never be able to play sports again. That was pretty hard to take as a 13-year-old. Sports never left my mind, though. Because it was all I knew, and I knew I wanted to get back into it somehow.” – Casey O’Brien
“I don’t do anything different than anybody else on the team. Every workout that is scheduled is the same. Because, if you ask me, I am just the same as the next guy. My legs and lungs might not be the same, but when you put the pads on you are all the same.” – Casey O’Brien