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The faithful didn't pray only for gridiron success for O'Brien. They know he and his family face a challenge more serious than any blitz an opposing defensive coordinator might invent. O'Brien's son Jack suffers from lissencephaly, a rare brain disorder. Jack cannot talk or feed himself. Every day he suffers multiple seizures that can cause him to stop breathing. The seizures can last seconds or agonizing minutes. O'Brien's wife, Colleen, has learned how to best manage the seizures, but it never gets easier. So when O'Brien gets too wrapped up in football, he can look down at the photos of Jack and Michael on his desk.
While he understands football's place in the greater world, O'Brien doesn't want to be anything but a football coach. He doesn't want to be an icon. He isn't performing any Grand Experiment. He knows his job is to win games and make sure his players graduate. If he doesn't do that, he knows Penn State will find someone who will.
O'Brien got his big break in coaching with a graduate assistant job at Georgia Tech in 1995 because Yellow Jackets coach George O'Leary called Brown assistant Jim Bernhardt with a request. "I need somebody smart enough to get into Georgia Tech's grad school and dumb enough to want to be a football coach," Bernhardt remembers O'Leary saying. "I know just the guy," replied Bernhardt, who recommended O'Brien, the Andover, Mass., native who had played linebacker and then become an undersized defensive end when Brown needed one.
O'Brien rose through the ranks at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, then made his name working with Brady and the Patriots. Despite all that experience, O'Brien had no concept of the volume of work that would cross his desk when he finally got the top job. At Penn State he has faced far more headaches than most first-year coaches.
Fallout from the Sandusky scandal continues: lawyers for former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz went to Harrisburg for pretrial arguments last week. The news barely penetrated the bubble O'Brien and his staff have erected around the team as it prepares for the first season of the new era of Penn State football.
Charge ahead. Turn the page. That's all the Nittany Lions can do now. None of the current players had any hand in the cover-up that brought down an icon and humbled a university, but they are dedicated to picking up the pieces. "We're glad we can play football," Urschel says. "We're grateful we didn't get the death penalty." So, led by a smart guy dumb enough to want to be a football coach, Penn State players will pour into Beaver Stadium on Sept. 1 bearing their names—and the program—on their backs. "We're not beaten," Urschel says. "We're not broken down. They still have to beat us on the field."