Favorite athlete: Dirk Nowitzki
Favorite team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Favorite memory competing in sports: Winning the District One 6A championship in basketball this year
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: One of the most embarrassing moments is being rim blocked on a wide open dunk
Music on iPod: No Time – PnB Rock
Future plans: Sports Marketing and Management
Words to live by: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
One goal before turning 30: Help pay off my parents' house
One thing people don’t know about me: I love to landscape and do yard work.
By GORDON GLANTZ
When an athlete is injured, those on the outside see the work he or she puts in to get back into action.
But that’s the physical side of it.
What they don’t see is the emotional toll – a toll that Abington’s Joseph O’Brien, the Univest Featured Male Athlete of the Week, knows all too well.
After going through the Abington School District until eighth grade, O’Brien went to Roman Catholic in Center City Philadelphia to experience a school steeped in athletic and academic tradition.
During the subsequent AAU season, while playing for the Tim Legler-coached South Jersey Jazz, O’Brien broke his foot.
When it didn’t heal properly, he needed surgery, meaning a long and painful recovery period.
“I was out of commission for eight months,” said O’Brien, adding that part of that period included not even being allowed to walk on the injured pin.
A lifetime athlete, the 6-8 O’Brien suddenly found himself without sports in his life. He transferred back to Abington for his sophomore year because of the logistics involved in his rehab.
He was unsure of his status with the Abington basketball team and asked coach Charles Grasty if he was actually part of the squad, despite having not been in the program as a freshman and unable to suit up and prove his worth as a sophomore.
Although Grasty assured him a place, O’Brien still felt adrift. As a direct result, his grades started to suffer and he was not always fun to be around.
“I has some depression from the injury,” O’Brien reflected. “It was hard for me. I never dealt with that type of adversity before.
“I just tried to make it better this year.”
And that he did – with room to spare.
After playing a solid role as a backup big man off the bench in his junior year, while also playing for Legler again in AAU, O’Brien – a non-varsity football player at Roman as a freshman -- decided to play some football for coach Kevin Conlin, who didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and made use of O’Brien’s size (250 pounds to go with his 6-8 length) as a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end.
According to O’Brien, Conlin – a two-year starting center at Penn State – did do some hallway recruiting after taking over as head coach.
“He asked me to try it, and I felt it was a good opportunity,” O’Brien said.
The obvious thought, with a more prominent senior season awaiting on the basketball team, was getting hurt.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” said “O’Brien. “There is always a risk of injury. If it happens, it happens.”
But it didn’t happen.
On offense, O’Brien had 12 catches on the year for 348 yards. Going the other way, he had four sacks and recorded eight tackles resulting in losses.
“Joe is obviously a fantastic basketball player who we were able to commit to football for his senior year,” said Conlin, who admitted that, in retrospect, he should have gotten O’Brien even more involved in the passing game. “He solidified our offensive and defensive line.”
O’Brien rolled right into basketball season and was a key starter for the district champion Ghosts, finding a role as a shot-blocker and rebounder who scored when needed.
“My role was defense and rebounding,” he said. “I just prefer to win. I’ll take that over scoring 30 points.”
According to Grasty, O’Brien definitely could have scored more.
“But he was fine with it,” the Ghosts’ coach said. “He was not selfish. He was really supportive.”
Grasty went on to describe O’Brien’s role as being “super important” to the team’s success.
“He led us in rebounds and blocked shots,” he said. “We were able to do a lot because we had him back there. He played center for us and was more of a rebounder, but he had some double-doubles – 10 and 12, 12 and 10.
His role, with not many seniors on the squad, had another key facet to it.
“As a leader? Yeah,” he confirmed. “I felt this year was a good year for it.”
Although his missed time put him off the radar a bit for colleges, O’Brien still had plenty of options. Although he brings an intriguing skill set to the football field – one that a few dozen more pounds would make him into an offensive lineman with “basketball” feet – he has, for now, decided to stick with his first love, basketball.
While the ink is not yet dry, he has officially committed to Kutztown – over other PSAC schools – to play basketball while not ruling out football at some point in the future.
“That’s something I will talk to the coach about,” said O’Brien, on Monday, the day he made his decision. “But I will be playing basketball. That’s what I will be going there for.”
While basketball comes first, there was a certain joy in being able to be physical without hearing a whistle.
It was a big part of what brought him back to the fray, and it could be what does it again.
“I just enjoy football,” he said. “I can hit people and get away with it.
“Plus, it was a way to open new doors and get to meet some new people.”
Grasty noticed a difference in O’Brien’s approach after a senior season on the gridiron. The risk of injury was overshadowed by the reward.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” said Grasty, “so I wasn’t too worried. I just wanted him to have fun.
“You could definitely see a difference in his attitude, his style of play and his leadership. It made a huge difference playing football. He was working out, getting stronger, and was able to bang with the bigger guys.”
O’Brien agrees that it brought “a new physicality for me” to basketball.
And it helped write the script for a story that had a rough start but a happy ending.
“This past season was amazing for me, with us winning districts and everything,” said O’Brien. “I couldn’t have asked for a better year.
“All the guys were just super nice. It was just a good year for me.”
O’Brien shared his lifted spirits with a fellow student, Reed Simmons, who has autism and helps with the football and basketball teams. To help Simmons celebrate his birthday, O’Brien surprised him by preparing a cake.
“He is just an all-around good kid,” said O’Brien, who has a drawing class with Simmons. “He helps out with every team. I just decided to help him celebrate a little bit, making him a cake and singing happy birthday.”
“I thought that was just a great story about Joseph,” Conlin said. “It shows that (football players) are not just a bunch of meatheads.”
Conlin and Grasty both received a gracious email of appreciation from Simmons’ mother.
“He is an excellent person,” said Grasty of O’Brien. “That was just very nice, to do that for a kid with autism.”
O’Brien has also seen his grades steadily climb as his spirits have lifted. He feels confidents that he will graduate with a GPA in 3.3/3.4 range – a zip code that seemed unlikely a few years ago.
He was quick that add that his parents – Karen and Bob – were always in his corner, while his grandfather, Frank McCall, “always checked in” and his younger brother, Shane, was “a good little brother.”
He also gave an appreciative nod to his coaches, including Legler, the Big 5 legend who set him up with a trainer after his injury.
As fate would have it, O’Brien has Grasty as a teacher this year – not once, but twice, and back-to-back.
“I have him first and second period each day,” said O’Brien, who plans to major in marketing or sports management. “It’s enjoyable, because we are able to talk about sports and about life in general.”
Two things O’Brien is enjoying a whole lot these days.