Casey O’Brien has been seen on millions of TV and phone screens since the four-time cancer survivor held for three extra points in the Gophers’ 42-7 victory over Rutgers on Saturday.
With five more TV cameras pointed at him Wednesday at the Larson Football Performance Center, the sophomore from St. Paul mentioned just one screen he wanted to be seen on, and it would be for an audience of one: Megan Wagner, an 8-year-old girl battling complications from osteosarcoma, the same rare bone cancer O’Brien has beaten over the years.
“She is a special girl to me, and I’ve got to FaceTime her once I get back to my room, so you guys can’t keep me too long,” O’Brien joked with reporters.
O’Brien’s story of perseverance has gone mainstream. It spread in sports circles in July when he was the keynote speaker at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in Chicago, and in September, when his story was featured on ESPN’s “College GameDay” show.
After the Cretin-Derham Hall graduate made his collegiate playing debut last weekend and shared a long, emotional hug with coach P.J. Fleck, his story was on national morning shows and the evening news. It had gone viral online within minutes.
But O’Brien isn’t into the fame. He said he’s just trying to show kid cancer patients, “if I can, you can.”
O’Brien endured many rounds of chemotherapy, 14 operations and 200 nights in the hospital before a scan in August showed he has been cancer free for 15 months and counting.
O’Brien wears 14 bracelets on his right wrist for all the child cancer patients he has met or has connected with, some of whom have lost their battles.
“It’s hard to put into words, but I would just say that I’m carrying a lot of people, whether they are here or not, every time I step on the football field,” he said.
Amid the rainbow of colorful wristbands is a yellow one with the words #Meganstrong. Wagner showed no signs of cancer after a three-month checkup in early October, but heart failure put her back at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital last week, according to her gofundme.com page.
Wagner’s heart is pumping only 20 percent of the blood it needs, and supporters elsewhere in the Gophers football program, including Fleck’s wife, Heather, are calling for help.
“Prayer warriors I need all of you!!!” Heather tweeted Sunday. “Megan is one of the strongest & most amazing little girls I know, with an incredible family. Please say so many prayers for her and help in any way you can. She is rowing thru the biggest storm of her life.”
O’Brien checked off a lifelong dream last weekend by playing college football under the bright lights of the Big Ten. Come midweek, he was back trying to inspire others behind the scenes.
“My faith has become an even bigger part of my life as my story has grown,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten the chance to be like God’s cancer angel.”