Each year there are a number of wonderful stories emanating from the highest level of college football that pertain to a player who initially joined a team as a walk-on and was ultimately rewarded with a scholarship.
Kevin O’Brien is at the head of this year’s class. Instead of spending a year or two before receiving a scholarship like most walk-ons, he spent his first three seasons at Colorado State as a walk-on.
O’Brien’s ear-to-ear grin in a video that captured the moment during preseason camp when it was announced the offensive lineman was be awarded a scholarship truly was priceless.
“It meant that all my hard work kind of finally paid off,” said O’Brien. “It paid off (last year) because I was able to play a lot, but this was like having something basically in my hands that was like, ‘Hey, you did it and you deserve the scholarship.’”
It was big news to his parents, who were on a cruise when O’Brien called.
“They were very excited and told me there were going to take an extra week on the cruise since I was going to save them a lot of money in semester,” said O’Brien, chuckling.
There was no chuckling leading up to the Boston College game at the end of September last season. Starting center Jake Bennett suffered a knee injury during practice, which opened the door for O’Brien to take over at the position and start the final 10 games. Walk-on or not he was suddenly a vital cog on a team that won 10 of its first 11 games before finishing 10-3 in coach Jim McElwain’s third and final season with the Rams.
“It made me a lot better player and a lot better teammate,” he said of the heightened responsibility. “I really committed to learning the offense and being a better player all around. Sitting on the sidelines you only get so much work, and then all of a sudden you are thrust in and get a lot more reps.”
While he has started only two of the 10 games he has played this season, O’Brien has been a key contributor in a line that has paved the way for a ground game that is fourth in the Mountain West and 35th nationally.
As he prepares for his final college game against Nevada in the Arizona Bowl on Tuesday, O’Brien looks back at his three years as a walk-on and sees there were some frustrating moments before he was finally awarded a scholarship. However, it is his love for the game of football that would prevail each time negative thoughts crept to the fore.
“There were times when I was like, ‘Man, am I going to get this? Is this going to happen? Is my work going to pay off?’” he said. “I kind of thought, well, I love the game, I love playing the game and I just wanted to keep playing football.”
Not only did the 6-foot-3, 295-pound O’Brien keep playing football, but on Dec. 18 he participated in fall commencement ceremonies boasting a pair of undergrad degrees, one in economics and one in political science.
“I struggled when I got here,” said O’Brien, who spent one semester at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio before attending Colorado State. “I got some help and really kind of came into my own academically and started to really commit to it more.”
Just like on the football field his perseverance in the classroom paid off. The next step for O’Brien is to begin work on his master’s in adult education and training.
The Katy, Texas native would like to work with adults, including veterans, who are returning to school or are taking college-level courses for the first time. O’Brien, whose older sisters are both teachers in Katy, has a little experience in that area thanks to a couple of friends who work with veterans services.
“It is a really rewarding experience, especially with veterans,” he said. “They have been through a lot and it is interesting to hear their stories.”
O’Brien’s career Fort Collins is a nice story, though there is one more game. It is an unusual matchup from the standpoint the Rams (7-5) and Wolf Pack (6-6) are Mountain West rivals, though they did not play each other during the regular season.
“We are really excited about the bowl game,” he said. “We want to get after it and play real physical, especially up front. We want to make sure that (Nevada) knows they are playing one of the most physical teams in the country.”
With the career he has had it is safe to say O’Brien will leave nothing on the field.
Above: Kevin O’Brien’s perseverance paid off with a scholarship and dual degrees at Colorado State. (Courtesy Dan Byers/CSU Athletics)
Video courtesy CSU Athletics