John’s Journal: Father And Son, Living A Football Dream
Dan And Casey O’Brien Are Finally Coaching Together At Holy Family
Posted: Monday, September 25, 2023 - 4:25 PM
One of the biggest stories of the 2023 high school football season in Minnesota is the new coaching staff at Holy Family Catholic in Victoria. Dan O’Brien, who coached at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Bemidji and Lakeville before becoming head coach at Concordia University in St. Paul and later an assistant coach and director of football operations at the University of Minnesota, left St. Thomas Academy to become head coach at Holy Family. His staff includes Dave Nelson and Jeff Ferguson, who came out of Hall of Fame retirements after combining for 10 state championships at Blaine, Minnetonka (Nelson) and Totino-Grace (Ferguson).
O’Brien, Nelson and Ferguson are football warhorses, football lifers. The most interesting and inspiring member of the Fire’s football staff, however, is a 24-year-old rookie coach … also named O’Brien.
Casey O’Brien is well-known in Minnesota for reasons that have everything to do with courage and resiliency. He was a freshman at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul in 2013 when he was diagnosed with cancer after complaining of pain in his left knee. The 13-year-old underwent tests that revealed osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
Surgeries (including a knee replacement), chemotherapy and other treatments continued as cancer returned, time and again, through Casey’s time as a walk-on kick holder at the University of Minnesota and beyond.
All told, Casey is a six-time cancer survivor. He has endured 27 surgeries, countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and he has spent nearly a full calendar year in the hospital. He undergoes scans every three months and his most recent tests, in August, marked him as cancer-free for nine months.
Dan O’Brien led a very successful program at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, taking the Cadets to a 49-5 record in five years, including two Prep Bowl appearances. But there was one glitch: Casey refused to join the coaching staff. Because of his strong ties to Cretin-Derham Hall, a big rival of St. Thomas Academy, Casey wouldn’t wear the Cadets colors alongside his dad.
Casey said, “At the start of every season he was like, ‘Hey, you're going to come coach, right?’ And you know, Cretin has been a fantastic school to myself and the community that supported me through my journey, and it just didn't feel right to me to do that to the school that I care so much about. So I had a little school pride in saying, ‘I'm not going to do it.’ ”
One of the benefits of Dan O’Brien’s job change was opening the door for Casey to finally work alongside his dad. He’s the quarterback coach at Holy Family and it’s a dream come true … even if the dream includes nightmare-like times of uncertainty in the hospital, times that frequently had a football theme.
“It was something that we had talked about for a long time,” Casey said. “You know, we spent 350 nights in the hospital together talking football and watching film, watching games on TV. I've always wanted to be a part of trying to go win games with him. This has really been a fun experience for me.”
Holy Family had lost 20 consecutive games over three seasons before the Fire opened this season with a 45-0 win over Academy Force. “That broke the streak,” Dan O’Brien said. “That was a monkey off our back.”
The Fire are now 2-2 on the season after losing to unbeaten St. Agnes 33-14 last Friday. Casey O’Brien viewed the action from the press box, wearing a baseball cap backwards over a headset with which he spoke to Nelson, who calls the offensive plays.
“That was Vegas or Bama,” the young coach said into his headset. “We’re seeing Man Three coverage.” When a fake punt resulted in what initially appeared to be a first down, Casey’s voice rose as he said, “We have it! We have it!”
“I'm helping watch what the defense is doing and trying to think of plays we can run,” he said. “Coach Nelson will say, ‘Hey, give me some help on a third-down call.’ And I'll tell him what their defensive backs are doing, and where I think we can get them.”
Dan O’Brien beams when talking about coaching with his son.
“When I took this job, a small piece of it was knowing he would come along. We talk about being around the best and treating kids right. We’re laughing every day.”
Casey said, “When he was talking about taking the job I said, ‘If you take it, I want to be the first hire on the staff. I want to be a part of it.’ ”
The younger O’Brien, who works as an investment associate at RBC Wealth Management in downtown Minneapolis, admits that it can be hard to not think about football during the workday, after which he drives to Victoria for practice.
“On Fridays I’ve got to snap myself back in and concentrate on finance a little bit because I’m just so excited to get out here and be a part of it,” he said. “Win or lose, this is the highlight of my week.”
Fire senior quarterback Gavin Frye said that because of Casey’s youth, “He really kind of relates to us a lot.”
The announcement earlier this year that the new coaching staff would include Dan O’Brien, Nelson and Ferguson remains memorable for Frye.
“It was surreal. It felt like a daydream,” he said. “I remember the day I came home from school and my dad was telling me who we got. So then we started looking it all up, making sure it was actually true. That was really exciting.”
Casey’s coaching jobs means time at practices and games, of course, but he works just as much and just as hard as the rest of the staff.
“Case works with the quarterbacks and a little bit with the receivers,” Dan O’Brien said. “He does a good job. He sends out film every single night from practice.
“I’m really proud of him. He sees things that kids his age don’t always see. He’s at staff meetings, Saturday meetings, Sunday meetings. He does a good job, he’s working hard.”
Nelson has known Casey for a few years, but mainly as Dan’s son. Working alongside the young, inspirational coach has been remarkable.
“I’ve known him for a while, but when you're coaching with somebody you really get to know them much better,” said Nelson, also a cancer survivor. “He's never had a bad day out here. He's just an inspiration. It's fun to coach with Casey. He's knowledgeable and obviously he’s got a great perspective on things. He’s really good with the players.
“He has a great outlook on life and how can you have a bad day when you're around him?”
The Fire will host Byron on Friday for their annual Tackle Cancer fundraising event. The goal is to raise $15,000 for the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund.
After the loss to St. Agnes, the Fire players took a knee and gathered around their head coach. O’Brien talked about the disappointing loss, about continuing to work hard, about using the pain of losing to get better as a team.
When he asked the assistant coaches if they had anything to add, Ferguson said, “Some of you didn’t play your best game. We didn’t coach our best game. We need to coach better.”
And then Dan O’Brien, with his son standing a few feet away, looked past that night’s game. He smiled at all the young faces and said, “Tomorrow’s a whole other day.”
It sure is.
--Click here to watch Casey O’Brien’s inspirational speech at the 2019 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon: https://shorturl.at/crDJ7
--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]