Amid another cancer fight, former Gopher Casey O’Brien is ‘having too much fun living’

Casey O’Brien’s favorite Thanksgiving food isn’t one of the more-popular dishes. It’s not turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing or pie a la mode.

O’Brien craves the roasted vegetables — Brussel sprouts, broccoli and peppers — coming straight out of the oven. “Diet is something that has become really important to me,” he said. “… That (food) sounds really good to me.”

The former placeholder on the Gophers football team is grateful for Thanksgiving as he battles cancer yet again.

The 23-year-old St. Paul native had surgery last week to remove a malignant spot in his right lung, and while his diet is supplemented by a daily chemotherapy pill, he will celebrate the holiday with his dad’s side of the family in the morning and his mom’s side in the evening.

“The thing I tell people is I have too much fun living to ever think about giving up or not showing up to a treatment or not figuring out the next surgery,” O’Brien told the Pioneer Press. “That is because I get to be around people who make life fun.”

But for many others, O’Brien is the one that makes life fun, the one that looks on the bright side of things and works to make better situations for others.

Last summer, O’Brien started the Team One Four Fund to raise $1 million for the transfusion center in the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. They have raised $800,000 and want to reach $1 million by the end of 2022.

The project is to upgrade the ninth floor of the hospital. O’Brien called it the “journey clinic,” where, to the right, are the patient meeting rooms to discuss scans or diagnoses or future plans for chemo and to the left are the day-of treatment rooms.

“I’ve spent a ton of time up there,” O’Brien said. “It’s a floor that, if you are up there, something serious is going on. My goal has always been, I want to make that experience a little bit better for every kid that walks through those elevators.”

When O’Brien retired from college football in January 2021, he had at least five bouts with cancer since age 13. He previously said he lumped the five and six together because six sounded like it was too much.

After more than a year cancer-free, O’Brien had surgery to remove a spot in his lung in April. In August, another spot was found and he took a chemo pill for two months in an attempt to ward off spreading, and with its success, he had an operation last week. He believes it was his 25th total surgery.

So, is O’Brien’s cancer-bout count now up to to six, seven or is it eight?

“When I talk to people I kind of say, six-time,” O’Brien said. “It get tough to really tell what makes the battle different from five to six. Can call this one seventh? If I wanted to, sure, but for me, I’m still in the thick of it now, from May, so to me this is the sixth go-round.”

When O’Brien was dealing with cancer while on the football team, head coach P.J. Fleck was always a call away. The day before a scan, Fleck would ask O’Brien to give him the results the next day.

“He would be like, ‘I don’t care if I’m in a meeting, call whenever you find out,’ ” O’Brien recalled this week. “There were times when I would be calling him sobbing, saying, ‘hey it’s come back again’ or I’d call him again saying, ‘we have clean scans, let’s go celebrate.’ He was right there for a lot of the ups and downs of it.”

Back in Fleck’s office last week, O’Brien and Fleck sat next to the Christmas tree and chatted for an hour. “We didn’t talk anything about football,” Fleck said. “We talked about life. It was one of the most joyful 60 minutes I’ve had in a very long time because it was Casey.”

Since he hung up his No. 14 jersey, O’Brien said Fleck has become a friend. “We get along so well because we see things in a really similar way,” O’Brien said. “It’s always about finding the positive and what is the good news in the situation. It’s rare to find people that you can say, ‘hey, you see this exactly how I see this. You get the way that I’m looking at it.’ For me, I feel like Coach Fleck is that person for me. He’s always saying, ‘what’s the plan? When are we doing this? When are we doing that?’

Before surgery last week, O’Brien joked that he was late to his pre-op because he paid a quick visit to see Braxton Battaglia, a young girl who has grown close to O’Brien and the Gopher football family. Braxton’s Leukemia had relapsed earlier this month.

“That affected me a lot more emotionally than my spot coming back or we got to do surgery, we got to go back on chemo,” O’Brien said. “Hearing that for her just killed me because I can handle that as a 23-year-old.”

O’Brien went to see his friend before surgery, when he could be seen as a man in need.

O’Brien, who works for RBC Wealth Management, sometimes stops by the Larson Football Performance Center to see the staff and former teammates. Other times, he will talk or text with them.

“He is not going to sit there and talk about, ‘Oh man I’ve got cancer again,’” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “He’s asking about us. He is asking about how the team is doing, about our upcoming games, things like that. He watches us on TV. It doesn’t phase him, he is going to continue to battle and that is what Row the Boat and never give up is all about.”

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