O’Brien and his wife, they have gotten up before. Colleen O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Boston College, started law school at Wake Forest and finished top five in her class at Georgia State. She is a lawyer by trade, a full-time mother by choice and necessity. Bill O’Brien played football at Brown, where both his parents and both his older brothers went as well, but had decided as a kid growing up in Andover, Mass., that he would be a coach. So a typically nomadic journey began, from Brown to Georgia Tech (a time in which he met Colleen) to Maryland to Duke to the New England Patriots, where he coached in two Super Bowls and rose to be Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator.
In 2002, just before the last of his eight seasons at Georgia Tech, where he started as a graduate assistant and became the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Colleen gave birth to Jack, and the O’Briens started their family. But from the first days and weeks, both maternal and paternal grandmothers got a vibe from their grandson.
“They knew what a newborn baby should be doing,” Bill O’Brien said. “And Jack was struggling to do what most newborn babies do.”
And that’s why third-and-one — and the route to the stadium, and where a team dresses, and other traditions and details — doesn’t seem so important. When the O’Briens moved to Maryland, where Bill served as Ralph Friedgen’s running backs coach, they took Jack to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and received the diagnosis: lissencephaly, for which there is no cure. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the term literally means “smooth brain.” Jack’s brain doesn’t have normal folds in the cerebral cortex. For his whole life, he has suffered multiple daily seizures, which Colleen must do her best to subdue, even as Jack weighs more than 80 pounds.
Now, they know it as their life. Then, they were just trying to deal.
“You have a lot of guilt,” Bill O’Brien said. “What did you do wrong?”
The answer, of course, was nothing. Colleen hit the books, finding out whatever she could about the condition. Bill kept coaching through perhaps the toughest time of his career. After the 2004 season, he left Maryland for Duke, where he was not only reunited with former Georgia Tech assistant Ted Roof, then the Blue Devils’ head coach but where he could again be an offensive coordinator, where he could again call plays. But the move was also about family: Duke offered top-flight medical facilities that could better serve Jack’s needs.
“He’s always been extremely driven and very passionate about what he’s doing,” said Roof, who now serves under O’Brien as Penn State’s defensive coordinator. “But at the same time, as well it should be, there’s nothing more important to him than his family.”