As college approached in 2009, Danny O’Brien entered what he calls some of the worst months of his life.
He would look down to see red welts covering his arms, chest and sides of his abdomen, the effects from a severe and seemingly unstoppable case of poison ivy. At night, he’d scratch more than sleep. Then, by the time summer workouts at Maryland started, O’Brien struggled to find energy, his usual zealous demeanor crippled by yet another malady, a reaction to mononucleosis that left him sluggish and dazed.
“It was like hell,” O’Brien says.
How O’Brien wound up confronting the double dose of illnesses provides a window into the mind of Maryland’s sophomore quarterback, who has been described as everything from “extraordinary” to “unusual” by family members, friends and coaches. Those adjectives have little to do with his right arm — which helped him win last season’s ACC rookie of the year award — and everything to do with how the 20-year-old thinks. Whether it’s dissecting game tape or dealing with personal hardship, O’Brien approaches life with a level of poise and focus that even those closest to him view with admiration and curiosity.
Todd Willert, O’Brien’s coach at East Forsyth High who remains close to O’Brien’s family, said: “It’s almost like he needs obstacles in his life because he needs the challenge. Seriously.”
O’Brien’s 14-year-old sister, Bridget, remembers when her brother started urging her to make short- and long-term goals and post them on the wall. Most impressive were their ages: O’Brien was in middle school, Bridget was in kindergarten.
Willert recalls the day when his senior starting quarterback, Kenny Swab, approached him with a novel idea: Swab would move to wide receiver because it was time for O’Brien, then a lanky sophomore, to become the starting varsity quarterback.
And Randy Edsall, Maryland’s first-year head football coach, needed only one encounter with O’Brien to know he is a “rare individual.” During Edsall’s initial meeting with his new players, he asked if anyone had questions.
O’Brien had two: “When am I getting a playbook? When are you going to hire the offensive coordinator?”
“I knew right then and there,” Edsall says, “that I have a special guy.”
Long before O’Brien was the face of Maryland football, he lived with his parents and younger sisters, Nellie and Bridget, in the St. Paul, Minn., area. O’Brien shoveled snow merely so he could shoot hoops. His father bought him an action figure of Dan O’Brien, the former decathlete, and sat with his son to build a 3,000-piece Lego pirate ship from a box larger than the 4-year-old boy.
But O’Brien’s parents, Matt and Janie, eventually divorced. By the summer after the fifth grade, O’Brien had moved with his sisters, mother and stepfather Steve Wright to Kernersville, N.C., a quaint suburban community between Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
To leave Minnesota, “at first I hated it,” O’Brien says. “Hated it.” The divorce weighed on O’Brien, as well, but also strengthened his relationship with his sisters, with them leaning on him for support.
“Danny is positive on everything,” Bridget said. “He always thinks everything is going to be okay, every single time. Me and Nellie really look up to him. That’s when we got the closest, was when times were the toughest.”
O’Brien began making friends through Pop Warner football and quickly adapted to middle school. He didn’t have time to dwell on his new family dynamic. He poured himself into sports.
“Having that outlet for whatever — stress, anger — really helped,” O’Brien says. “Sports are great for that.”
That’s when O’Brien began showing signs of an advanced analytical, schematic mind. His mother and stepfather started finding stray papers filled with squiggly lines, formations and plays drawn by an adolescent.
In the halls of East Forsyth High, his commitment to film study was memorable.
O’Brien would spend at least an extra 10 hours per week watching film. He’d pop in his coach’s office with a game plan after dissecting the next opponent over the weekend. O’Brien was content watching the same play over and over, identifying things that at times even his head coach didn’t spot.
“It is a humbling experience, being a football coach, to think that I worked my whole career to try to understand something, when you have a kid coming in and saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got to do this,’ ” Willert says. “I have been doing this for almost 20 years, and he sees all this stuff.”
Even today, during visits home, O’Brien will spend hours at the high school, helping with game plans, devising ways to attack defenses and watching tape with the whirring of a large fan in the background of the non-air-conditioned room. Sometimes his mother calls Willert, wondering if he could please ask her son to come home.
Carrying an assortment of brush in his back yard led to the poison ivy outbreak in 2009. Then it spread. Medicine caused it to flare up, O’Brien said, and he wore a long-sleeved shirt when he traveled to Maryland to watch the spring game.
“It was disgusting,” O’Brien said.
Then, when he arrived at Maryland in the summer, he was utterly exhausted.
“I don’t think I knew it right away, and I was practicing,” O’Brien says. “I just thought it was because college workouts were so hard. I was, like, dying. Then I found out I got mono, I rested. Thankfully, it went away. I felt great after that. That was a long span.”
Janie, his mother, said: “The difference in that one was when he said, ‘Mom, it’s really affecting me.’ ”
O’Brien conducted his own research on the illness. He sought online help with a counselor while also receiving support from Maryland. He also had several conversations with an internist in Minnesota.
“It tested me,” O’Brien says. “It rattled me a little bit. It didn’t rattle me terribly. I was down, not on myself, but it just kind of sucked to prepare the way I did and then be out a little while.
“I hated it. There’s nothing you could do about it except rest. There’s no treatment.”
O’Brien counted down the days until when his doctor said he would feel better and wound up not missing any preseason camp.
“Danny does not get shaken,” his mother said.
Another dose of adversity came this past December, after O’Brien’s redshirt freshman season in which he started 10 games. Offensive coordinator James Franklin — one of the biggest reasons why O’Brien chose Maryland — left to become Vanderbilt’s head coach. Head coach Ralph Friedgen was then fired after 10 seasons at his alma mater.
“I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” O’Brien said, “but at the time I could not really see why.”
O’Brien helped Franklin move out of his office. The coach was at Maryland one day, gone the next. What made the month more difficult was the uncertainty surrounding who would be hired and when.
But once Maryland hired Edsall, O’Brien grew excited again about the future.
“You can’t sit back and sulk about it because we have a season coming up,” O’Brien says. “And if I was sitting here being depressed about it and talking bad about the new staff, I think I would be cheating my teammates because we’ve got to play either way. But we’ve got a great offensive scheme, and I think it’s going to help everyone having two systems that were so different.”
O’Brien’s father moved to Kernersville 31 / 2 years ago and lives less than two miles from where O’Brien’s mother, stepfather and sisters reside. O’Brien said he has a great relationship with his mother and father, “two completely different people, both great in their own respect.”
And after battling an alcohol problem earlier in life, Matt said this October will mark his 23rd straight year without a drink. He cherishes his time with O’Brien.
“I’ll give him my left kidney and both lungs if I had to,” Matt said. “There’s nothing like a mother’s love, a father’s love, because you’d die for your kids. God doesn’t ask us to do crazy things like that. The next best thing is to want your son to have, at an early age, your experience and an explanation of what works and doesn’t work and why, so he’s the better man. I want my son to be a better man. I want him to be better than me.”
O’Brien’s parents and family emphasize balance. And for all the focus on athletics — more than two dozen newspaper photos of basketball and football players cover the wall above O’Brien’s bed in his Kernersville home — O’Brien takes pride in staying grounded. He completed an Under Armour internship this summer and was recently accepted into Maryland’s business school. An electric guitar rests next to his bed at home. And he often visits grade schools to speak to children — one time, it was three schools in one day — on trips home. When it comes to football, his family said, he is driven but not obsessed.
Driving a visitor around on a late-August afternoon, Matt O’Brien grabbed a copy of a local newspaper article that questioned whether his son could continue his success. Matt repeated the article’s premise: “Can he do it again?”
O’Brien’s 22 touchdown passes in 2010 were the second most in a season by a Maryland quarterback. Coaches have been impressed that they have seen no signs of complacency after last season’s success.
After all, Danny O’Brien has loftier goals for himself and his team — namely, the ACC title — and doesn’t need to attach any more reminders to a wall. Bridget, O’Brien’s youngest sister, noticed a peculiar image on the background of O’Brien’s cellphone:
“It’s a picture of an orange, like for that bowl,” she said.