STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Every morning, Bill and Colleen O’Brien know their older son, 10-year-old Jack, will have a seizure when he wakes up. It could last 30 seconds, or it could go on for 30 minutes, necessitating an ambulance trip to the hospital. There may be more seizures during the day, depending on disparate factors like weather patterns and Jack’s growth spurts. And when they happen, the O’Briens can do little except to turn their son on his side and wait for the seizure to end.
The O’Briens face daunting challenges every day that have nothing to do with scholarship restrictions, a bowl ban or reviving the sullied reputation of the Penn State football program. In a college town where perspective has become a buzzword in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ new coach, and his family have plenty of experience in keeping it.
“Obviously the challenges that they’ve had, those are far greater challenges than what’s going to come down the road professionally," said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien’s best friend. “I know that the football situation now is a great challenge, and people have their perspective on it, but they go through great challenges every single day."
Bill O’Brien has an Ivy League education and more than a dozen years as a college assistant, and he took a salary cut of more than 50 percent at age 37 in order to be a glorified film grunt for the NFL’s New England Patriots. Yet what has shaped him and his wife most has been their experience with young Jack, who has a rare genetic brain malformation known as lissencephaly. Jack O’Brien moves around only by wheelchair or commando crawling on his belly and has severely limited motor planning, meaning the brain is slow to tell the body what to do.
“In a way, it was one of the best things that ever happened to us," Bill O’Brien said of Jack’s diagnosis. “It added so much perspective to our lives. We figured out what was important, and it brought us closer together and put in perspective the importance of football."
The O’Briens say they refuse to dwell on what Jack cannot do. Instead they rave about Jack’s dancing to Michael Jackson songs, his resilience in the face of his daily seizures and the way he smiles and rubs his belly in excitement when he sees his mom and his brother, 7-year-old Michael. Colleen O’Brien beams when talking about Jack’s smile, his love of firetrucks and his calm demeanor.
“Unfortunately," Colleen said, “with what he has, there’s not a lot you can do about it."
Very little time is spent feeling sorry for themselves.
“Millions of families go through this," Bill O’Brien said. “Hopefully by doing stuff like this, we can help other families feel better about their situation. I don’t want people to think we’re the only family going through this. We’re not saying, ‘Woe is us.’"
Going all in for the long run
In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, the NCAA imposed punishments on the Penn State football team, including a four-year bowl ban and severe scholarship restrictions, that could have lingering effects for the next decade. Already, more than a dozen players — including those already on the roster, recruits who had signed letters of intent and others who had made commitments — have transferred or decided not to go to Penn State in the aftermath of the scandal and the sanctions.
That includes the star tailback Silas Redd, who was the foundation of Penn State’s already shaky offense, and the top offensive line recruit, Dorian Johnson. The bowl ban lasts through the 2015 season, and the scholarship restrictions could keep the team from having the normal allotment of 85 scholarship players until 2020.
This is Bill O’Brien’s professional reality. His brother Jack O’Brien said that Bill was handling the sanctions with a familiar temperament, refusing to dwell on what he could not control.
Ten years ago, Bill O’Brien was an assistant at Maryland and recruiting in New Jersey when his wife called and told him to come home immediately. A doctor at Johns Hopkins had found that Jack, then almost 1, had lissencephaly. Despite being told not to, she had Googled the disorder and read some particularly grim outlooks.
“We were all pretty emotional," Jack O’Brien said. “We grieved, but after a few days, you go, ‘OK, these are the rules. Let’s go.’ Jack is a great kid, and he needs a lot of services, and we’re going to go out and give him the best."
Jack O’Brien noted the parallels between his brother’s handling of that situation and his current professional predicament: He has accepted the situation, knows the limitations and refuses to complain.
Instead of hedging, O’Brien has essentially recommitted. His contract has been extended through 2020, and if O’Brien were to leave after next season, he would owe Penn State a buyout of more than $9 million.
“If Bill O’Brien were worried about buyouts, he wouldn’t have taken the job," said his agent, Joe Linta. “This is his dream job, and he wants to lead this program into the future."
This is Bill O’Brien’s professional world. The rules are set. He is not complaining.
“Sometimes, the toughest challenges happen to only those who can handle them," said George Godsey, who played for O’Brien at Georgia Tech and coached with him in New England.
Growing up in New England
Born just outside Boston in the Irish enclave of Dorchester, Mass., Bill O’Brien, 42, spent most of his childhood in the area. Football and education played pivotal roles, as his grandfather, a former pressman for The Boston Herald-Traveler newspaper, played for a local professional football team — Pere Marquette — that used Fenway Park as a home field in the 1920s. Both of O’Brien’s parents attended Brown University; his father played football there in the 1950s.
The youngest of three boys, O’Brien was raised on a classic mix of New England sarcasm and self-deprecation, with an emphasis on the importance of education. For as long as his family could remember, he wanted to be a coach, and he avidly read the sports section of The Boston Globe. Jack O’Brien, who is 10 years older than Bill, jokes that when his brother was 10, he told him that his Christmas present would be the “polyester coaching shorts your gym teacher had."
With the needling came encouragement. Bill O’Brien followed his parents and two brothers to Brown, playing football and never wavering from his childhood dream. (Three generations of O’Briens have played football at Brown; Bill’s nephew Matthew is a sophomore on the team.)
Bill’s brothers went to law school and found success in politics — Jack O’Brien was a three-term Massachusetts state senator, and Tom O’Brien served as the director of the Redevelopment Authority in Boston under Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
But when Bill O’Brien graduated from Brown, and his peers headed to Wall Street and law school, he took a job with the university’s football team as a restricted-earnings coach. He paid $150 a month to live in a beer-soaked house, subsisting on a $5,000 salary and meals in the campus dining halls.
“The thing I give my parents credit for is that they never really discouraged that," O’Brien said.
O’Brien eventually moved up to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and he eventually met and fell in love with Colleen, a graduate of Georgia State’s law school whose temperament proved the perfect complement to O’Brien’s coaching life and the challenges the couple eventually faced.
“There’s a lot involved in the challenges that she has as a mom and as a wife in this profession that we have," Marrone said. “Billy has a lot of challenges, too, but he still gets to go to work. When I think of the challenges, I think of Colleen first."
Winning over the fans
Two months ago, during an interview in which he was joined by Colleen in his office at Penn State, O’Brien would have made his politician family proud with his answer about replacing Joe Paterno.
“We’ve got a lot of new people here that just want to move forward and pay respect to what Coach Paterno did here as far as the success he had both on and off the field," O’Brien said.
But after the release of Louis J. Freeh’s report that implicated Paterno and other university leaders for withholding information about Sandusky, O’Brien’s task looms so much larger than simply replacing a legendary coach. O’Brien rarely speaks of Paterno these days; the topic has become too delicate.
Initially, some prominent Penn State alumni like LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short and D.J. Dozier spoke out against O’Brien’s hiring. They preferred the longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley or another coach with Penn State ties. That public criticism quickly passed. About 450 former players traveled to Penn State to support O’Brien and the current players after the NCAA sanctions were announced last month. Tim Sweeney, the president of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, said that O’Brien’s character had won over the lettermen, fans and alumni.
“At 42, the man has already fought bigger battles than what he’s facing at Penn State," Sweeney said. “And he’s won those battles. He’s a devoted husband and father and has shown the principles instilled in all of us. That’s what makes everyone so excited that he’s our guy."
Throughout everything, O’Brien has tried his best to do what his parents taught him. When he is recognized during one of his predawn trips to Dunkin’ Donuts, O’Brien reminds those who offer compliments that he has yet to coach a game. When Penn State’s season opens Saturday against Ohio, O’Brien will begin a new era of Penn State football by staying grounded and staring straight ahead. The rules are set, and the O’Briens appear ready to take on the task.