LINCOLN — A tall, strong-armed, accurate quarterback from Orange County, Patrick O’Brien arrived last week at Nebraska as the kind of prototypical, pro-style California passer who usually stays close to home, running one of those Pac-12 offenses.
Growing up, O’Brien had in fact envisioned just that at, say, Stanford, right around the time Andrew Luck was tearing up college football.
But the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder is instead a coup for NU’s coaching staff, a four-star, potential top-100 national prospect whose passes cut through the air and hit neatly the hands of receivers. Nebraska offered O’Brien first, pursued him hardest and sold him best on its vision for him.
“I really fell in love with — and chose to stay loyal to — the school who took a chance on me,” O’Brien said.
Once O’Brien committed last summer, he laser-focused on his final season at San Juan Hills High School. That senior season was proof of O’Brien’s potential. He completed more than 75 percent of his passes and accounted for 40 total touchdowns.
O’Brien is not seen as a developmental prospect or a run-first thrower or some quarterback in a spread system who rung up huge numbers but slings it sidearm. His personal quarterbacks coach, Steve Calhoun, has been working with O’Brien for five years and lauds his mechanics. At San Juan Hills, O’Brien played in a pro-style system complete with reads and checks designed by his coach, himself a former college quarterback.
“He had a strong arm and good feet, and he was in a system that really challenged him to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
So, naturally, O’Brien carries with him the weight of expected achievement in Lincoln.
“It lights a fire,” O’Brien said. “It motivates you to really prove to fans I can be what they want me to be and be as good as they think I can be and not let them down.”
And Husker fans should know: O’Brien and his family view him as a tireless, willing competitor. He wants this as much as you do.
“I was the type of kid who cried whenever I lost anything,” O’Brien said. “I hate losing. I’ve learned to control it with maturity, but when I’m on the field, it’s pretty ferocious.”
His dad, Paul O’Brien, calls him “off-the-charts competitive.”
And his mom says you don’t have to tell him to work hard.
“He knows,” said Anna O’Brien, a former Swedish national volleyball player whom all agree is the biggest source of her son’s fire, who’d drive Patrick to sessions with Calhoun and run laps while Patrick threw reps. “He’s not afraid of work. He’s been working his butt off all the time.
“When everybody else went to the beach, he worked out,” she said. “After the season, he worked every day. It’s something he wants. He wants it so bad.”
And if this seems common — a talented athlete with a fire to compete — understand that Patrick’s sudden rise up the recruiting charts over the last year is not so typical. Nor is one of his biggest inspirations, a life event so closely held that Patrick rarely talks about it — and didn’t in a recent interview, either.
An event that, until this last year, his parents didn’t quite know had such a profound effect, even though both of their lives were changed by it.
An event that almost seems like a perfect match for Nebraska — and Langsdorf in particular.
It took applying to the Elite 11 quarterback competition last summer to really flesh it out. And before Patrick got to that point, he put in years of work to arrive at that moment, and his commitment to Nebraska.
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Paul’s voice still has a bit of an East Coast accent. He grew up outside Philadelphia and was a top swimmer at Kutztown (Pennsylvania) University. After college, he competed in lifeguard/rescue competitions and loved being near the water.
“I got sand between my toes,” Paul said. “I wanted to work somewhere and still go to the beach, and I ended up moving out to California with a couple other lifeguards.”
In California, he met Anna, who’d been more of a defensive specialist on the Swedish national teams because she wasn’t as tall as some of the other players. Paul’s buddies eventually left the area. Paul and Anna stayed.
Patrick was “a big boy — 10 pounds, three ounces,” Anna said. “Big boned. We were like, ‘He is going to be something else.’ And when he got home, Paul put a baseball, basketball and a football in his crib.”
Growing up, Patrick played all those sports — and he swam, just like his younger sister, Emily, does now. His first football team was the South Orange County Patriots, and Patrick played fullback and middle linebacker. Patrick was perhaps just as good of a pitcher as he was anything else, and baseball helped to channel some of his competitive juices.
By eighth grade, he was a quarterback because of that strong arm, and through a neighbor, he started working with Calhoun, a private quarterbacks coach who has tutored many college and NFL signal-callers, including former Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Calhoun said Patrick had all the tools to be a good quarterback, but became a much better one after he quit baseball during his freshman year at San Juan Hills. Then Patrick didn’t have to switch back and forth between a quarterback’s style and a pitcher’s style.
“I just loved football,” Patrick said.
His parents understand the risks that come with the position.
“You’re always nervous — your son’s out there and there’s a lot of big guys coming after him — and you always have that fear, that something’s going to happen,” Anna said. “You see it on TV all the time. But he would never stop anyway. He’s told me, ‘I’d rather die than not play football.’ ”
Patrick didn’t start at San Juan Hills, a relatively new school in Orange County without much program history, until his junior year. Coach Aaron Flowers, who played quarterback at Cal State Northridge, installed an offense that had more intricacies than most.
In a recruiting world where most quarterbacks are known quantities by the time they’re sophomores — and some are even getting offers — Patrick was off the radar. He threw just four passes as a sophomore. As a junior, he was good — throwing for 2,093 yards and 12 touchdowns — but he didn’t have any offers at the end of that season.
But he and Paul were looking at schools. The family had long paid attention to college football programs, but the Huskers weren’t at the top of their list. Oregon State was on the list — until Mike Riley left Oregon State for Nebraska.
“Nebraska wouldn’t have been on the map for us if it wasn’t for Coach Riley,” Paul said. “They want to get to the type of offense that’ll fit Patrick real well.”
Around that same time, Patrick tried out for a top 7-on-7 passing team in Los Angeles. Paul recalled Patrick had to beat out 40 guys for the quarterback job. Patrick did, and landing on that team — B2G Team Five Star — was the beginning of Patrick’s ascent.
Flowers, meanwhile, started sending out Patrick’s junior film. Langsdorf knew Flowers through a connection, and said he probably watched more film of Patrick than any other quarterback in some time. Flowers had even gone so far as to make a film of Patrick’s interceptions so coaches could get a feel for which were his fault and which weren’t.
“Through doing that, I felt better and better about him,” Langsdorf said.
In March, Patrick, still unheralded, still without any offers, won MVP of the Elite 11 Los Angeles regional. There, he caught the eye of former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.
“He probably took the drills to the competition better than anyone else,” Dilfer said that day, according to Bleacher Report. “He applied what he learned early throughout the day and just stroked. He showed anticipation and showed timing. He showed a large catalog of throws. He was really impressive.”
In April, shortly after Nebraska’s spring game, Langsdorf went out to evaluate a short list of quarterbacks. Patrick was one of them.
“I just felt like he really fit our style, and we were his first offer,” Langsdorf said. “Then he got a bunch of interest after our offer, and I told him that would happen. And I wanted to make sure he knew we were his first and he should remember that.”
Patrick committed in late May — a few weeks after another quarterback, Terry Wilson, had committed to the Huskers. Wilson would later flip to Oregon. Patrick fielded a few more offers — Texas Tech and Colorado State among them — but shut down the process and stuck with Nebraska.
He never got a single offer from a school in California. Patrick recalls that with a bit of steel in his voice.
What he doesn’t mention — and no media other than ESPN seemed to know about until now — is a driving force behind his career. Patrick wrote about it being his top inspiration in a letter to the Elite 11 bunch, and ESPN, in turn, interviewed Anna and Paul about it. But that interview never aired.
Five years ago in February, Anna and Paul were part of a kidney donation program run through a San Diego hospital. Anna donated a kidney to a stranger in Washington; Paul got one from a stranger in New York. Sixteen donors and 16 recipients were in the program. For Paul to be in it, he needed Anna to be willing to donate a kidney to someone she didn’t know. When he asked, she said: No problem.
“I got my kidney removed in the morning and he got his kidney in the afternoon,” Anna said.
“I’ve got a brave wife,” Paul said.
“Patrick said, ‘I want to donate,’ but we said, ‘You’re too young to do it,’ ” Anna added.
Just in eighth grade. Right around the time he became a quarterback.
Paul needed a kidney because he was suffering from IgA Nephropathy — a long-term disease that, in Paul’s layman’s terms, “clogged up the filter system in my kidneys.” For years he didn’t know he had it because he’d been in such good health, but for nearly three years before the kidney transplant, he took dialysis.
“That was the worst,” Paul said. “You don’t realize how much your kidney does. When you have to have a machine to clean your blood and take your toxins out, it’s a horrible experience.”
Anna said Paul lost 50 pounds. She estimated that, if he hadn’t received the transplant, Paul had only a few months to live.
After the surgery, Paul was in the hospital another four weeks. Anna was out in three days, but couldn’t drive for 10 weeks. Neighbors helped drive Patrick and his sister to their sporting events.
The O’Briens were lifelong athletes. They believed in the power of sport.
“If Patrick didn’t have sports, I didn’t know what would have happened,” Anna said. “It’s always been sports, sports, sports. I don’t think it ‘saved’ him, but it really helped him.”
“He realized not to take things for granted,” said Paul, who’s doing well after the transplant and taking medication. “It was a very tough time for the family. I think he had to kind of grow up mentally and try to be a little stronger.
“I never realized it really affected him that much. I tried not to dwell on it. But, come to find out, it was a significant part of his early development.”
Patrick doesn’t like to talk about those years, Anna said. He doesn’t want fans or anyone else to pity him. And yet, given his last year — the diligence it took to rise up recruiting charts that had long ignored him — his purpose is rooted in those days.
“He was so tough and so strong,” Anna said. “He didn’t know if Mom and Dad were going to come back from that. It was a tough time, and he handled it like no tomorrow.”
And the O’Briens’ story fits neatly with that of Langsdorf, who himself donated a kidney to the wife of Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh. Before the O’Brien family made its official visit trip to Nebraska, Anna had read about it, and couldn’t quite believe the odds. Neither could Langsdorf.
“It was fun swapping stories,” he said.
During the visit, Anna found herself meeting Langsdorf’s wife, Michelle, Cavanaugh and Cavanaugh’s wife, Nancy, the perfect match for Langsdorf’s kidney. Later, as she discussed her story with Langsdorf, Anna and he came to a similar conclusion.
“Coach Langsdorf said, ‘I never hesitated to do it,’ ” Anna said. “And I said, ‘Neither did I.’
“It’s meant to be,” Anna said of Patrick playing at Nebraska. “It’s just meant to be.”
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