Playing in the NFL is, for so many men, a lifelong dream. But there are times when your dreams have to take a back seat to your willingness to serve.
Brandon O'Brien is 6'1", 220 pounds, a receiver built in the mold of Anquan Boldin. He's also 30 years old, a Marine veteran, and until Tuesday was angling for a special teams spot with an NFL team, either through the upcoming draft or as a free agent.
But O'Brien won't be suiting up for an NFL team this fall. Instead, he's made the decision to rejoin the military, deciding that he'd rather go hands-on in serving his country.
O'Brien's life is a story in overcoming adversity. He was a walk-on at Kentucky in 2000, but family problems forced him to drop out of school to go back home to Florida to work and support his loved ones. He then enlisted in the military, serving two terms over four years in Iraq. While there, he earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving the lives of two fellow Marines who'd been swept out to sea while swimming.
He returned home in 2010, still burning to play football, only to find his NCAA eligibility had expired. So he enrolled in the NAIA's Montana State Northern University, and proceeded to match or set several school records. He set marks for most touchdowns in a game with 3, most receiving yards in a game with 226, and most receiving touchdowns in a season with 11.
After three years in Havre, Montana, he set his eyes on the NFL draft. He trained at the Athletes Performance Institute in Frisco, Texas, where he reportedly ran a 4.56 40. It's not world-class speed, but O'Brien had the physical assets, and obviously the mindset, to catch the interest of the NFL.
But now, it appears that he'll be aiming a bit higher. On Tuesday, O'Brien contacted his agent, Brad Berkowitz, and let him know that he wouldn't be seeking a pro contract after all, and instead would be returning to serve his country.
"He actually told me 'sorry,'" Berkowitz said. "I said, 'You don't have to apologize for anything. I'm behind you 100 percent.' There's so much good in this guy. This is what America is made of."
While it would make for a good story to say that Monday's Boston Marathon tragedy galvanized O'Brien, the truth is that he'd been thinking of returning to the military for weeks.
"He told me, 'I don't want these kinds of things to happen in our country, or any country,'" Berkowitz says. "That says who he is as an individual. He's not just thinking about himself and his country."
O'Brien is a private individual, so much so that he declined a request to be interviewed for this story. But through Berkowitz, he stressed that this is by no means a Pat Tillman-type move, where an established professional turns his back on NFL riches to serve his country.
"He's seen some comments about how he's looking for attention, how he's crazy for turning down the NFL, and he's offended by that," Berkowitz says. "If he had made the NFL, he would have donated a significant portion of his salary to the Wounded Warrior Project."
And indeed, were it not for the hard work of Berkowitz, this story wouldn't have even seen the light of day...which is probably how O'Brien would have liked it. Berkowitz was looking to get O'Brien a bit more publicity heading into the draft, and had apparently drawn interest from at least one NFL team. Berkowitz had pitched the idea of a 30-year-old receiver trying to, in effect, walk on to an NFL team, and the NFL Network bit. O'Brien was scheduled to be the focus of a camera crew, but when Berkowitz informed them that the story had changed, the NFL remained interested, and brought the story to light.
The leap from the military to football wasn't a difficult one for O'Brien. "I take pride in everything I do, and I think the military is the ultimate team game," O'Brien told the Yahoo! Contributor Network in March. "If one guy doesn't do his job, bad things can happen. We're talking life and death here, not losing a game or turning the ball over. It's really a higher scale, and having that perspective in my life and building a mental toughness with the type of training I've gone through and the training I've had, it's such an invaluable asset to have."
"He's got a Marine mentality," Berkowitz said. "It helped him play football. And it's going to help him wherever he goes next. This guy is a true role model."
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-