Brandon O'Brien isn't your average NFL Draft hopeful. The 6'1", 218 lb wide receiver served two tours of duty in Iraq before deciding to dedicate his post-Marine Corps life to getting a shot at playing professional football.
For the next three months, this tough ballcatcher should probably bow to the inevitable and officially change his name to "30-year-old Brandon O'Brien." He'll be asked approximately one million and two times if he has enough athletic ability at this age to compete at the NFL level. According to O'Brien, his agent and some of the staff at Athletes' Performance NFL Combine Preparation Program, the answer is a resounding "yes."
He'll be poked, prodded and pushed to prove that his years as a member of one of America's elite military fraternities have made him a football force. Scouts and coaches will scrutinize every deep breath, rep and measurable while critiquing his performance against competition far stiffer than he has ever faced on the field. For a man who has been deployed twice in the Middle East, this process shouldn't prove terribly intimidating.
Sports culture has an inappropriate tendency to equate competition with battle and players with warriors. O'Brien says that he is "not offended" by the metaphors and adds good-naturedly that a football game "is a battle in a sense. After all, your opponent is trying to cause you physical pain." Nevertheless, he doesn't delve into the details of combat with the younger men journeying this road to the draft and beyond.
"Sometimes I'll tell them about having to go on patrol with low rations or no sleep. But out there it's life or death. It's a level of responsibility that a lot of them will never know."
O'Brien lived that responsibility when he saw two fellow Marines caught in an ocean riptide. They were almost 100 yards off the beach, being pulled out to sea and drowning. According to his Citation, O'Brien "dove into the extremely turbulent surf [and swam] through rip currents and six-foot swells... Displaying exceptionally determined effort, Corporal O'Brien pulled both victims to shallow waters... [they] were saved as a result of his unflinching responsiveness during imminent, life-threatening circumstances... thereby reflecting great credit upon himself, and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps." For these actions, Mr. O'Brien was awarded The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, an honor bestowed in the past upon John F. Kennedy and Navy Diver Carl Brashear.
Nothing about Brandon's journey to this grueling NFL interview process has been easy. The Florida native frankly describes his high school team as both run-dominant and "not very good." Without much opportunity to showcase his wide receiving skills, O'Brien wasn't recruited as a scholarship athlete. He decided to attend the University of Kentucky and joined their team as a walk-on. The plan was to work his way into prominence on this passing offense and focus on a potential future in the NFL.
And then life happened. When his family needed his help to survive financially, O'Brien chose to leave school and contribute. Ultimately, he determined that military service was the best option.
However, his pro football dream was only sleeping. After a day on patrol in the Iraqi desert, Brandon would head to the base's weight room so that he could stay in peak condition. His comrades encouraged him to pursue the NFL quest after his service commitment and O'Brien took up the challenge, even after discovering that his Division I eligibility had expired.
In another display of critical thinking and maturity, Brandon methodically concluded that the level of competition in the NAIA's (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Frontier Conference fit his needs and he convinced Montana State University-Northern that he fit theirs.
A couple of seasons and team records later, Brandon and a teammate decided to forego Spring Break in Cancun to attend a one-week training session at Athletes' Performance in Arizona. This winter, with his own savings and support from his family, Brandon is participating in the three-month NFL Combine Preparation Program held at the Athletes' Performance facility in Texas. There are more than 25 Combine Training programs, but AP is probably the best known, in part because the results are jaw-dropping. In 2012, 14 of the 32 first-round draft picks trained with Athletes' Performance.
While most high-profile athletes attend Combine Prep programs as part of an agent's investment in their future careers, lower-round and free agent hopefuls like O'Brien sometimes foot the bill themselves. His endorsement of the experience thus far is unreservedly enthusiastic: "It is so worth it! When you think of where you could be, what could happen for you, [this money] is a drop in the well."
Arriving at the AP program completely on his own initiative, O'Brien now has an agent who has arranged for his appearance at the Beyond Sports Network Collegiate Showcase early next month and a March Pro Day in Montana. Brandon worked out at the Houston NFL Regional Combine on February 16th and is hoping for an invitation to the Dallas Super Regional Combine that will be attended by representatives from all 32 NFL teams. In 2012, 28 players who attended the Super Regional either made rosters or practice squads, so the financial, physical and mental commitment can pay off.
Brandon may or may not become a professional football player, but he "feels blessed to be here. After all, my unit is in Afghanistan -- I could be there. There is a lot of love and admiration here. Many of the other guys have family that have served." O'Brien has friends among his fellow veterans who have suffered injuries of the body, mind and spirit and intends to support The Wounded Warrior Project should football give him the platform.
Whether Brandon O'Brien will convince NFL coaches, scouts and general managers that he can summon his inner Tony Gonzalez and give them a few good years catching passes and making special teams tackles remains to be seen. They will indisputably come away from meeting him with the conviction that spending time with this veteran, hero and hopeful will elevate your perspective, improve your faith in mankind and generally just make your day.
My thanks to Peggy Iralson and Adam Farrand of Athletes' Performance for their assistance and to Brandon O'Brien for his time on the night before his Regional Combine.