CHICAGO — Reverberations from Gophers football player Casey O’Brien’s speech on being a four-time cancer survivor began with a 75-second standing ovation at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon Friday, July 19.
O’Brien’s 13-minute message about gratitude in the face of a rare illness clearly touched the crowd of 1,500 inside the Hilton ballroom.
ESPN commentator and event emcee Rece Davis started the next wave of impressions, and the subsequent final batch of conference coaches on the microphone, both Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, gave shoutouts to O’Brien.
“Awesome job, Casey,” Davis said. “I can tell you this: There are going to be hundreds of thousands of people that are going to watch replays of that speech, too. That was really impressive.”
O’Brien was the first player speaker at the annual event to come outside the three standout players each program brings to the media days showcase. He was the first walk-on, the first Gopher since Eric Decker in 2009, and he followed the likes of Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins.
After paying respect to those predecessors, O’Brien detailed his first two bouts with osteosarcoma bone cancer. His first two occurrences occurred during his time at Cretin-Derham Hall High School dating back to 2013. Two more came after he became a backup holder on field goals and extra points at the University of Minnesota in 2017.
“Once again I would not let it stop me,” O’Brien said. “I took chemo pills before every practice in my first spring ball. Did not miss a practice. I spent all of last season wearing a specially made shirt with a pad sewn into it to protect a medical port in my chest for treatment I was receiving. Did not miss a practice.”
O’Brien has had 14 surgeries in all, three apiece on each lung, and months of chemotherapy. He has spent more than 200 nights in hospitals. The cancer eviscerated his left knee, leaving him with metal rods, jokes about going through airport security and a declaration.
“I’m over one year cancer-free,” he said before receiving one of many strong rounds of applause from the ballroom crowd.
When he asked his parents, Dan and Chris, to stand and be honored, his father, a former Gophers football assistant, wiped a tear from under an eye.
“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 continued. “All the tests, scans, blood work, chemotherapy, loss of hair and everything else that happens when you fight cancer have been worth it.”
Before his speech, O’Brien tracked down Brohm, the Purdue coach, in the hotel to thank him for the way he embraced Boilermakers fan Tyler Trent, who lost his battle with the same cancer last year.
After his speech, O’Brien stood in the hotel lobby, shaking his many well-wishers’ hands like a politician.
Rose Bowl president Laura Farber instead wanted a hug and invited him to the Granddaddy of Them All in Pasadena, Calif., in January.
“If we don’t make it, I’ll come,” O’Brien responded.
Each member of a family of purple-clad Northwestern fans shook his hand, and the father said, “You are going to be talked about for a long time.”
A Michigan State fan wearing a Spartan lapel pin shared, “Up until now, Cousins’ (speech) was the best. You topped them all.”
In preparation for his speech, O’Brien telephoned Cousins and spoke with the Vikings quarterback for more than a half hour, asking everything from how many times he practiced what he was going to say to what he ate for breakfast the day of the speech. (Eggs and bacon, O’Brien shared.)
O’Brien practiced his speech upwards of 40 times, including a dry run Thursday on the imposing stage that included the conference’s 14 coaches and two massive video boards behind him. During the long program, he stepped out to recite his words one more time before taking the stage.
O’Brien had spoken in front of up to 300 people at the University of Masonic Children’s Hospital but never to a crowd of this size. Dan was visibly nervous for Casey before the speech, but his son delivered it with aplomb.
But there remains a thought in the back of the O’Briens’ mind.
“You go to bed and you walk up every day and you say, ‘Is it there or is it not there?’ ” Dan O’Brien shared on Casey’s thinking. “Am I going to have surgery? Am I going to be OK? Then it’s what do I have to do to get better? Just tell me what it is. If it’s a surgery, we’ll do the surgery. If it’s chemo again, lets do the chemo again. If it’s immunotherapy, we’ll do the immunotherapy.
“There’s the physical aspect of it, but that pain is going to go away,” Dan continued. “It may take a week or a month. Whatever it may be. He might have to sit out school and workouts. It’s that mental piece.”
Casey will have his three-month check-up scan in mid-August. What was revealed Friday is he will have a lot more people cheering him on.