Receiver Brandon O'Brien, who stands 6 feet 1 inch and weighs 220 pounds, took the field at the Athletes Performance Institute (API) in Frisco, Texas and began to run. There were no cameras there to capture his workout on film, no coaches or general managers sitting by on the sideline with a stopwatch in their hand to clock his speed, and no media waiting for him to appear at a podium to answer a slew of questions about his background.
No, the 30-year-old O'Brien simply went about his business, building up his skill set and measurables to a point where he hopes that when he does get that opportunity to meet with an NFL team, they'll come to appreciate just how far he's come in his quest to play pro football.
This is nothing new for O'Brien, to go about his business without fanfare. It's who he has become.
A Different CallingO'Brien's path to the NFL began much like any other young man who had dreams of entertaining crowds of 70,000-plus every Sunday during the fall.
At University High School in Orlando, Fla., O'Brien was a standout receiver who, unfortunately, didn't get much action on a team that predominantly ran the ball. That likely cost him a chance to earn a scholarship to a major football program, but it certainly didn't deter his hopes of continuing his dream to play professional football.
Instead, the New York-born O'Brien enrolled at the University of Kentucky, where he was a walk-on for the school's junior varsity team as a receiver, starting every game in that position during the 2000 season.
"It was a great experience," O'Brien recalled, adding that during the week he'd get a chance to practice with the varsity team. "I got to go up against some great (defensive backs) like Eric Kelly (Minnesota) and Marlon McCree (Jacksonville, Houston, Carolina, and San Diego). And they really gave me some good pointers about playing receiver."
However, after a promising season, life had other plans for O'Brien, who was faced with a decision, a decision that most young men chasing the glory that comes with playing professional football might not have made.
"We hit upon some hard financial times at home," he said. "Family comes first with me; it always has. So I went home to help."
While back in Florida, O'Brien worked a series of odd jobs, all the while hoping that at some point in time, he would get another opportunity to play college football. Working for companies such as Coca-Cola and Abercrombie & Fitch, O'Brien soon realized that he was meant for an even bigger challenge: the Marines.
"My little brother (Roger) joined the Marine Corps," O'Brien said when asked what inspired him to enlist. "That really hit me deep in the heart because he was doing this for our country."
And so O'Brien, who has several male family members with a history of service in the Marines Corps, enlisted at the end of 2005, serving a four-year term that included two deployments to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It was definitely a calling for me," he said. "I figured I'd worry about football later."
The Best Kind of TeammateDuring his deployment, O'Brien served as part of a team responsible for the tactical employment of sophisticated weapons systems, where, during the course of his duty, he said he witnessed things that he never imagined he'd ever see.
However, it was during his second deployment to Iraq that he experienced a situation to which not too many people can lay claim.
Stationed as part of a beach unit where he and his colleagues were responsible for discouraging vandals, during a late-evening patrol, he and his partner were making their rounds when suddenly they heard people screaming for help.
"There had been a bad storm, so we ran down to the shoreline and two guys had been swept out by the riptide," O'Brien recalled. "It was pretty much almost dark, and we didn't have any floatation devices because the lifeguards had gone off duty and had locked up the equipment."
O'Brien said he and his partner debated whether to call for help, before realizing that by the time help arrived, it might be too late for the Marines caught in the riptide.
That's when O'Brien sprang into action.
"There was a bit of daylight left, and I decided to go in there," he said. "I kicked off my shoes and swam about 100 meters through waves, and I honestly don't know how I got them. I just knew on the way out that I wasn't going to come back without them. I was not going to fail."
He didn't fail, earning himself a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism.
"I felt like if I had been in that position, someone would have done the same thing for me," he said, noting how the Marine Corps instilled the concept of teamwork in him from the first day he set foot in boot camp. "You help people who need you."
A Changed ManWhen his four-year military term ended, O'Brien, who kept himself in shape during his deployments, hoped to return to college to resume his dream of playing pro football. However, in 2010, when he sought to reenroll in school, he learned that his NCAA football eligibility had expired.
Rather than become discouraged, O'Brien, as the Marine Corps had stressed so many times, didn't give up when facing adversity.
He enrolled at Montana State Northern University in Havre, Mont., and NAIA school where in his first season of football in almost 10 years he reached or set several school milestones, including most touchdowns in a game (3), most receiving yards in a game (226), and most receiving touchdowns in a season (11). He finished the 2010 season, the first of his three-year career at the school, as a first-team selection in the All-Frontier Conference.
In addition to excelling on the field, O'Brien was a shining example for his younger teammates when it came to being selfless.
"I take pride in everything I do, and I think the military is the ultimate team game," he said. "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.
"The reality is you're one day going to have a man put his life in your hands, and that's not a responsibility a lot of people have in this world," he added. "So you have to accept that and also trust another man with your life, making it a great bond to share with someone."
Just like on the football field.
Pursuing the DreamThese days, the embers within O'Brien are burning more intensely than ever before, so much so that he drew from his own savings to enroll in an intense training program to help boost his chances of catching the eyes of NFL teams this spring.
Unofficially timed anywhere from "the high 4.5's to the low 4.6's" in the 40-yard dash, O'Brien doesn't necessarily possess blazing speed, but as one of his trainers at API noted, it's not always about straight-line speed.
"The thing that you have to look is a lot of time the combine doesn't reveal who can play football," said Roy Holmes, a trainer at API who has been working with O'Brien. "Yeah, it's true we want all of our guys to run 4.3s, but often times a lot of these kids have track backgrounds, and that doesn't necessarily transfer over to football."
Holmes noted that the average NFL player runs anywhere from a 4.5 to a 4.7, with very few guys running at a 4.3 and almost no one running in a straight line. Given those facts, he believes that O'Brien can probably excel on special teams.
"You need those special teams guys," he said. "(Brandon) almost looks like a linebacker, so that kind of jumps out at you at first. He's also someone who brings his military background to every single workout.
"He likes the mental aspect of it and studies the game. He knows he's behind the gun because of his age and the school he went to, but he makes up for it by working hard and making sure that he can keep up with the younger players."
O'Brien, who participated in the NFL's Regional Combine in Houston on Feb. 16 and in his school's Pro Day on March 18, noted that his speed or any lack thereof has never been a problem.
"I've been able to run by people who were 12-13 yards off my whole life, and I've never been caught from behind," he said.
"If someone brings him into camp, I think they might be very pleasantly surprised," Holmes noted.
But if that call doesn't come, don't expect O'Brien to hang his head in shame and wonder what might have been, had he stayed in school.
"Even though we accept and understand why things happen, sometimes you can't really accept it until you get your mind right about it," he said.
That's why he plans to return to his military roots, which made him into the man he is today, if the NFL doesn't work out.
"I'd be totally happy with my life serving my country," he said.
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