O’Brien getting a kick out of FHSU football turnaround

FHSU University Relations and Marketing

By Randy Gonzales

HAYS, Kan. — Drew O’Brien didn’t plan on playing football in college, let alone wind up becoming the career scoring leader for Fort Hays State University. Yet, here he is.

O’Brien, a native of Hays, will lace up his cleats for the final time as a Tiger on Saturday, Dec. 5, in the 50th Mineral Water Bowl. Kickoff is noon at Excelsior Springs, Mo. Game and ticket information can be found at FHSU Bowl Bound.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” O’Brien said. “I can still remember my first kick, I can still remember my first practice, even. I’m sure once everything’s said and done, at the end of the season is when I really realize there is no more football.”

The journey for the Tiger kicker started five years ago when O’Brien was a junior at Thomas More Prep-Marian High School in Hays. An all-around standout in soccer who started at goalkeeper his entire high school career, O’Brien was having fun with homecoming activities. He entered a field goal kicking contest — which he won easily. The holder for the competition was the school’s football coach, Jon Borer.

“I just knew there was something different when Drew was kicking the ball,” Borer said. “It just exploded off of his foot.”

Borer had O’Brien in study hall the next semester and planted the seed of playing soccer and also kicking for the football team.

O’Brien liked the idea and ended up earning all-state honors in both soccer and football his senior year. When he wasn’t making diving saves on the soccer pitch, he was booming the ball into the end zone on kickoffs and booting long field goals — including a 50-yarder.

“He was a huge weapon for us, to the point where I knew if we got past the 40-yard line we would have a shot,” Borer said.

“It’s kind of funny how God’s plan works out,” said O’Brien, who was recruited by FHSU football coach Chris Brown after only two games of high school football.
After playing soccer since he was 5 years old, after years of traveling with the Hays Soccer Club, after visiting several college soccer programs with the intention of being a college goalkeeper — O’Brien chose football.

“Just happened football was the right way to go,” O’Brien said. “It seemed like a new task for me to tackle. I like challenges.”

O’Brien also wanted to stay close to home so his parents could watch him play.

“Part of the biggest reason I chose Fort Hays — other than Coach Brown welcoming me in — was that I wanted to be able to have my parents watch,” O’Brien said. “They loved watching me and my brother play sports growing up. I saw this as an opportunity for them to watch me in person.”

Brown knew O’Brien was a work in progress but also had no doubt he would get better.

“He didn’t have a lot of experience with it, but you knew he was going to work to be the best kicker he could possibly be,” Brown said. “His confidence in himself, that’s the kind of kid you want. You want a kicker that has that confidence. It kind of excited me that he had a chance to be our kicker for four years.”

A returning senior kicker was on the roster entering preseason in O’Brien’s freshman year. But that kicker got hurt, and O’Brien took the field for the season opener. He’s been on the field ever since and will play his 45th game as a Tiger Saturday.

“He’s just a joy to be around,” Brown said. “I can talk about anything, not just football. We just have a relationship, enough trust in each other, we just talk about things. I’ve loved him. I’ve enjoyed him. He’s going to be very deeply missed by our team and by our coaches. Drew is just a great kid.”

Brown tested O’Brien right out of the gate. On the road for the season opener at Emporia State University, O’Brien’s first collegiate field goal try — and make — was a 47-yarder. Later that season, he hit a career-long 48-yarder. Then on a wet, muddy field at Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University in Bolivar, Mo., he split the uprights from 36 yards out to make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter of a contest the Tigers eventually won in overtime.

“I knew I could make it,” O’Brien said. “Before that, I didn’t have any kicks that were game-changers. To be able to do that gave me confidence for when I did have that opportunity in the future.”

That opportunity came in this year’s season opener. O’Brien drilled a 19-yard field goal at the gun for a 30-29 win at University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Okla. O’Brien said if you’re not a kicker, you might not appreciate the degree of difficulty on that short kick. The ball was placed on the right hash mark — which in college is not lined up with the goal post — so the kick attempt was at a sharp angle to the left.

“It was not just a left kick, it was a violently left kick,” O’Brien said. “That angle is just unnatural. It’s unnatural how hard left you had to kick it.”

Making that kick was the start of a special season for Fort Hays State, one for the record books. The Tigers’ 8-3 mark ties the best record in a season, one which can be broken with a win over University of Minnesota-Duluth in the bowl game — the program’s first post-season appearance since 1995.

O’Brien is proud to be part of the turnaround in the moribund program Brown inherited.

“It’s something special,” he said. “After we win this next weekend, we’ll be able to say we were part of that team. We can look back in five, 10 years when Fort Hays is still great and say we were part of that turnaround.”

In addition to team records, O’Brien has eclipsed individual kicking and scoring records at FHSU. He broke the career scoring record for kickers and also surpassed the overall scoring record of 220 points that stood for 49 years, set in 1966 by quarterback Bob Johnson. O’Brien, who now has 242 total career points, also holds the single-season record for extra points with 51, set as a sophomore. His junior season, O’Brien served as the Tigers’ punter and got off a 78-yarder, tied for second on the career punting charts.

“Obviously, I never thought I would be able to get there, or even have an idea in high school that that’s where I would be at the end of my career,” O’Brien said. “It is something special; it will be one of my most special memories. But records are meant to be broken. It’s much cooler to be part of this turnaround than just the personal records.”

O’Brien and senior punter Jordon Stangler each earned honorable mention Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association honors this season. They have formed a special bond, as only kickers can have.

“Drew and I have really worked well with each other and helped coach each other up,” Stangler said. “It’s been a great opportunity, an honor to work with him.”

The kickers also can console each other after a shanked punt or missed field goal.

“That’s one thing that’s built our friendship, just communicating with each other to make each other better,” Stangler said.

O’Brien, a marketing major, also has earned MIAA academic honors every year during his career. He admits it can be difficult juggling academics and football.

“It’s been tough but it’s taught me responsibility,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been able to budget my time a lot better. It’s a full-time job.”

It’s a job that’s close to coming to an end. Around 3 p.m. Saturday, the clock strikes zero.

“It’s going to be a surreal feeling,” O’Brien said. “I’m not sure how I’m going to handle it.
I think for the game, I won’t be nervous at all. I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can, do what I can to help my team win. As for the actual feelings, it’s probably the bus ride home I have those feelings. Hopefully, it’s a good bus ride home.”


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