Pataskala, Ohio, native Will O’Brien has two families; he is the newest addition to the Ohio State baseball team and is one of Nancy and Bill O’Brien’s four children.
The OSU baseball team recently adopted O’Brien with the help of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the lives of children with pediatric brain tumors.
O’Brien was born with cancerous brain tumors and his mother said he simply was not supposed to live this long.
“When other mothers were buying clothes for their babies a year ahead of time, I couldn’t do that,” Nancy said.
The O’Brien family applied for Will to be adopted through the program, but never imagined he would be matched with OSU.
“We were really thrilled,” Nancy said.
OSU alum Michael Hunter was the liaison with Friends of Jaclyn who worked to pair O’Brien with the baseball team.
He went to the baseball team with the idea of adopting one of the kids in the program, and the team got right on board.
Pitching Coach Greg Cypret thought it was a great idea and the captains were really looking forward to it, Hunter said.
Getting O’Brien involved took longer than Hunter would have liked due to a lengthy process in the athletic department compliance office, but O’Brien was approved in mid-April.
O’Brien receives team e-mails, phone calls and updates. He is also on the field prior to home games, gets to go into the locker room and is often in the center of the team huddle.
He was shy and reserved in the beginning, co-captain Zach Hurley said.
“We took a team photo with him in the middle and the smile on his face was unbelievable, it was just priceless,” Hurley said.
It didn’t take O’Brien long to warm-up to the team. When offering some encouragement before the game, he said only one word: win.
“It was always fun to see the spark in his eye when he got really excited supporting the team,” co-captain Cory Kovanda said.
Kovanda is O’Brien’s favorite player.
O’Brien has been passionate about baseball since a young age, but has been passionate about the Buckeyes since birth.
Nancy recalled moments when Will was an infant, in the beginning of what would become a rollercoaster ride of events, she said.
In May 1992, at 10 months old, O’Brien underwent his first surgery to remove tumors. Because O’Brien was so young, doctors used fiber optic chemotherapy after the surgery and treated an infection in his head for seven weeks.
O’Brien underwent his second surgery in October of that year and received a bone marrow transplant in December.
He endured his third surgery in October 1993.
“That’s all we were willing to do then because he was just two and had spent his whole life treating the disease, so we kind of thought we’d be lucky enough to stay well,” Nancy said.
O’Brien was well for three years until his luck ran out. He had his fourth surgery and began his first rounds of radiation.
The radiation caused O’Brien to lose his hearing. He now has bilateral hearing aids.
Along the road, his growth began to diminish and his developmental delays were more apparent, Nancy said.
But he never let his disability slow him down.
O’Brien began playing soccer when he was 5 years old, after his mom had to petition to be allowed to play in a baseball cap.
He was the only child on the field who was losing his hair.
O’Brien was healthy until he was 14.
The O’Brien family turned to Gamma Knife, a non-invasive surgery for brain tumors.
After failed attempts with this new method, O’Brien underwent his fifth and final surgery in September 2005.
“I remember so clearly the doctor and nurse practitioner coming in with very sad faces and telling us the pathology from the last surgery was still live tumor and there was really nothing more they could offer us,” Nancy said.
The O’Brien family was fine with that.
In 2006, O’Brien entered Watkins Memorial High School with more optimism than fear.
He earned straight A’s his freshman year and played cymbals in the marching band.
Intervention specialist Jim White, has been working with O’Brien for four years. He is very active and involved at school, White said.
In May 2008, at the end O’Brien’s sophomore year of high school, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and in a wheelchair for nine months.
“That was the most devastating physically,” Nancy said.
Never once has he complained or asked why it had to be him, White said.
“He would also say ‘God has a plan for me,'” White said.
With the assistance of an orthopedic that keeps his foot in position, O’Brien has since regained his strength to walk on his own and has roughly 60 percent of his dominant side back.
He continued to excel in school and began to play the bass drum in the marching band.
“I like learning and making new friends,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s favorite sports are baseball and hockey, but he truly loves Disney World, which the O’Brien’s try to visit at least once a year.
“When we were little I used to go to New Jersey,” O’Brien said.
His favorite trip was traveling to 12 theme parks in 12 months.
Today O’Brien is very active, but suffers from mild to severe seizures as a result of his medications.
But high school has thrown O’Brien an unexpected curveball.
He has met the requirements to graduate, but as a student in the special education program, O’Brien will continue his education at the high school level until he is 23.
The Southwest Licking School District does not allow social graduations.
The stage was set for another battle, this time the opponent wasn’t cancer.
O’Brien’s friends and classmates organized a petition that circulated the school in support of his social graduation.
O’Brien’s fate hung in the balance for weeks as his family petitioned the school board.
In the end the school board voted in favor of his graduation.
“We won that battle and they’re going to write a new policy so that it is never an issue again,” Nancy said.
O’Brien agreed that this is his biggest accomplishment thus far.
Today, O’Brien is a graduate of Watkins Memorial High School and the O’Brien family is planning a big graduation party on June 5 to celebrate all of his accomplishments.
O’Brien has shared this experience with his brother Isaac.
“Isaac is such a good soul,” Nancy said. “He treats Will like his brother; he doesn’t treat him like he’s fragile.”
Isaac, who is only 14, often takes the role of the big brother.
“I have to help out wherever I can,” Isaac said.
But Isaac is reminded that he’s the baby of the family and said, “Will wants to show me around next year.”
For once, Isaac isn’t the one protecting Will, Will is going to be looking out for Isaac.
“I could tell that Isaac was always out there making sure Will was safe,” Hurley said. “I could tell there was a strong bond between the two of them.”
This summer the two travel to Akron, Ohio, for Camp Quality, a camp for children with cancer and their siblings. This summer marks the 11th year the two have gone together.
O’Brien has two older sisters, Katie, 23, and Hannah, 21.
“Katie is the typical oldest child,” Nancy said. “She mothers everybody.”
Katie is a self-imposed caregiver to Will, and Hannah takes everything in stride and adds some much needed comic relief, Nancy said.
As if his devoted parents and protective siblings weren’t enough, O’Brien now has 40 more family members cheering him on.