Minnesota walk-on holder talks surviving cancer

CHICAGO -- University of Minnesota placeholder and four-time cancer survivor Casey O'Brien delivered the keynote speech at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon on Friday.

O'Brien, a sophomore, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer. It's the same type of cancer that eventually claimed the life of Purdue superfan Tyler Trent.

"I am thankful for every day that we get to spend together as a family -- the good ones and the bad ones -- because I know that tomorrow is never promised," O'Brien said during his speech. "All the tests, scans, blood work, chemotherapy, loss of hair and everything else that happens when you fight cancer have been worth it. We have beaten it four times, and I am now playing college football in the Big Ten."

O'Brien was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in December 2013 after pain in his left knee wouldn't go away.

"I was 13 years old and had big dreams," said O'Brien, who was a freshman quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul at the time. "I thought I was going to be the king of the school."

O'Brien needed a full knee replacement and nine months of chemotherapy. He had to give up sports and was told that he "would be lucky to walk, much less jog again" and that his football career was over. But after 18 rounds of chemo, knee and bone replacement surgery, and what O'Brien said was close to 90 nights in a hospital, he was cancer-free at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school.

"I couldn't wait to put all of this behind me and enjoy high school again," O'Brien said.

However, six months later, his cancer relapsed in both of his lungs, requiring three lung surgeries and seven more months of chemotherapy. With a complete left knee replacement and metal rods put into his femur and tibia, O'Brien eventually convinced his doctors to let him move from quarterback to placeholder.

He returned to the varsity football team as a junior, and in his school's season opener, he held every extra point in the win. The morning after the game, he checked into the hospital for a week of chemotherapy.

"I had no hair and was down to 130 pounds, but I was back jogging and playing football," he said.

Despite his cancer returning twice since he's been at Minnesota, O'Brien said he has never missed a practice and he competed for the Gophers' starting placeholder spot this spring, cancer-free.

"Without football, I would not have noticed that pain in my knee when I did, and I may not have found out that I had cancer," O'Brien said. "I would not be standing here today. I would not be living my dream of playing college football in the Big Ten in the state that I grew up in. I would not have some of my greatest memories or some of my best friends. Without football, I would not have gotten through some of the darkest days sitting in the hospital room. For all of these reasons, I am thankful.

"Coach [P.J.] Fleck did not have to give me a chance to walk on, but he did. And for that, I will be forever grateful. Minnesota is the only school that called me, and the only school that would give me a chance to play. Growing up less than 15 minutes from the stadium, it was a dream come true."