PISCATAWAY, N.J. — To casual observers, it was nothing more than an extra point tacked on in a budding blowout Saturday afternoon, Oct.19.
To those in the know, the Gophers did a lot more than just increase their lead over Rutgers from 27 to 28 points early in the fourth quarter at SHI Stadium.
With that play, Casey O’Brien won big again.
The redshirt sophomore placeholder — a four-time cancer survivor — had made his collegiate debut for the Gophers. The St. Paul native caught the snap, placed the ball and flawlessly spun it just in time for Michael Lantz’s successful kick.
Video of that regular-turned-remarkable play has gone viral.
“It was a lot of emotion,” O’Brien said. “It was a moment and a night that I’ve been thinking about since I picked up a football.”
O’Brien was a promising quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall when osteosarcoma bone cancer was discovered in 2013. He has had 14 operations, including a metal rod inserted in his leg, and spent more than 200 nights in the hospital as he fought a disease that wouldn’t leave him alone.
“To have it be one of those things that went from tragic to hope to accomplishment, that’s important,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
With cancer now in remission for more than a year, he was able to fulfill his dream Saturday. Teammates mobbed him on the field after his debut play.
“It just shows how much those guys care about me,” said O’Brien, who was the keynote speaker at Big Ten kickoff luncheon in July and featured on ESPN’s College GameDay in September. “… I looked over and the entire team was on the field. It puts a huge smile on my face to even talk about. It’s a blessing to be on this football team.”
O’Brien sought out a hug for Fleck, who was crying and answered Fleck’s question to all players: Is it worth it?
“Everything I’ve been through myself, with everything at the hospital and going through cancer four times, it was worth it tonight,” O’Brien declared.
As the 20th-ranked Gophers continued to separate from Rutgers, O’Brien had two more holds in the eventual 42-7 victory. The second one was low, but O’Brien talked of instincts to successfully set it up for Lantz.
The third was went off without the nerves of the first or the hitch of the second. He was 3 for 3 on the day. “I could let my shoulders down a little bit for the last one,” he said.
Fleck wanted O’Brien to play in the 34-7 win over Nebraska last week at TCF Bank Stadium, but when he was told he would be in next, the Gophers didn’t score again. So Fleck had O’Brien added to the travel roster, something he has rarely done.
O’Brien’s parents, Dan and Chris, flew out to New Jersey for the game. Afterward, they told him how proud they are, and he shared with them how thankful he is for their support.
O’Brien received a game ball in the locker room, and said there’s a special added layer in being able to do it for a program he grew up dreaming of playing for on and with them now 7-0 this season.
“It’s another thing that I can look back on from this night and say I was a part of that,” O’Brien said. “Just adds to the moment.”
Fleck added, “Hopefully he’s able to do it a lot more from this point forward.”