MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A high school football player from Minnesota is getting an award for his courage.

On Sunday night, the Minnesota chapter of the National Football Foundation will honor Cretin-Derham Hall’s Casey O’Brien with its annual Courage Award.

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O’Brien is getting ready for golf season at Cretin-Derham Hall.

He loves the competitiveness, and the time outdoors. But golf is not the O’Brien family game.

That would be football.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Casey’s dad is Dan O’Brien, an assistant coach for the Gophers. Casey grew up a quarterback. It was two years ago, midway through his freshman year, when he started having knee pain.

It wasn’t the knee injury he had in mind.

“I’ll tell you, it’s gut-wrenching,” Dan said. “Even to this day, it’s hard for me to talk about. It takes your breath away when you hear that, and then you don’t want to believe it.”

Casey had cancer. But he attacked it with the same competitiveness. Eight rounds of chemotherapy. A full knee replacement surgery. Twelve more rounds of chemo. It took eight months, but he beat it.

The cancer was gone.

“Everything was clean,” Casey said. “And thought I was in remission at that point.”

But six months later, the cancer was back. And it had spread.

“That’s when they noticed it in my lungs,” he said.

Casey had two more surgeries. Another eight rounds of chemo. Dan spent more than 150 nights in the hospital with Casey. They spent a lot of time talking, especially about the upcoming football season, which Casey, with his replacement knee and chemotherapy-ravaged body, certainly wouldn’t be a part of.

Until they got an idea. The least-likely position at which Casey could get hurt.

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“We thought it would be either kicker or holder,” Casey said, “and I’m a terrible kicker. So it ended up being holder.”

They hatched a plan for Casey to hold field goals and extra points in the season opener – for one last time on a football field. The last game he’d ever play.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“It was a lot of fun,” Casey said. “I hadn’t really ever expected to get the chance to play again, because all the doctors said that I would never play again.”

He kept coming back. In and out of the hospital, all season long, missing games here and there as he battled cancer and went through chemo, Casey continued to play.

“I would say that the thing that amazes me the most about Casey, is his positive attitude,” Dan O’Brien said. “There wasn’t a day that he’s ever said ‘Why me?’ or ‘How come me?’”

Jerry Kill noticed, and gave Casey a signed helmet calling him the toughest SOB on the planet.

“He is,” Kill said. “The way he handled things, he handled things like a man and not a little boy. He handled it like a man.”

Kill used Casey an example to his entire team.

“He helped uplift us all,” Kill said. “Made me a better person, I can tell you that.”

For all that football has meant to their family, the most important thing it’s ever done is this: Dan firmly believes it saved Casey’s life. When the knee pain while playing led to the diagnosis, when it gave him something to look forward to all those nights in the hospital, when the support from the football community poured in.

“The entire football community of Minnesota helped him,” Dan said. “I don’t know what his fall would have been like had he not had the chance to play football.”

Last month, Casey’s scans came back cancer-free. He’s beaten it again.

And he’ll be the holder again this fall.

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“Hoping to be a captain this year, first holder as a captain in the history of Cretin-Derham Hall,” Casey said with a chuckle. “I love playing football.”