Spring 2020

Holding strong

An inspiring cancer survivor on the Golden Gopher football team sees game action—and his chance to make an even bigger difference

Discovery first told the inspiring story of Casey O’Brien, a four-time cancer survivor on the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher football team, about two and a half years ago. Head coach P.J. Fleck had heard that O’Brien dreamt of playing for the Gophers before a rare type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma sidetracked his football career. Fleck offered him a spot on the roster anyway.

O’Brien cherished every minute on the team as its third-string placeholder this banner season. He befriended many children during the team’s visits to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where he was treated.

And on one sunny October afternoon, after the Gophers scored their fourth touchdown against Rutgers, Fleck called O’Brien’s number. He was in.


Kicker Michael Lantz crushed the football through the uprights for the extra point. O’Brien’s teammates mobbed him as he made his way back to the sideline for a long embrace with Fleck.

“I don’t think I’ve hugged a player that long in my entire life,” Fleck recalled afterward. “I didn’t want to let go of him.”

“He was the one who gave me the chance,” O’Brien said of Fleck after the game. “The first thing I said to him was, ‘It was worth it.’ Everything I’ve been through in my life was all worth it for that.”

Immediately following the game, calls, texts, and tweets of support flooded O’Brien’s phone. One in particular, from former Gopher distance runner and U of M Medical School alumnus Justin Grunewald, M.D., came with a question: Whose research did O’Brien believe in?

Grunewald lost his wife, Gabe—also formerly a distance runner for the Gophers—to cancer in June 2019. Together the Grunewalds had created the Brave Like Gabe Foundation in 2018 to raise money for cancer awareness and treatments.

O’Brien chose to establish the Team One Four Fund (his jersey number is 14) to support the osteosarcoma research of Masonic Cancer Center member Branden Moriarity, Ph.D. 

The Brave Like Gabe Foundation swiftly committed $100,000. CarVal Investors Foundation followed with $10,000. Since then, more than 110 others have made donations in O’Brien’s honor.

Make your gift to the Team One Four Fund at give.umn.edu/giveto/teamonefour.