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O'Briens embrace challenges with son with love, sacrifice

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 10:17 p.m.
Bill O'Brien is introduced with his family as Penn State's new head football coach during a press conference at the Nittan Lion Inn.
Bill O'Brien is introduced with his family as Penn State's new head football coach during a press conference at the Nittan Lion Inn.

Her Mother's Day will come with some combination of flowers, a meal she doesn't have to cook and cards.

Colleen O'Brien will probably also have to watch her 10-year-old son endure a seizure. Jack O'Brien has had at least one almost every day since he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder not long after his first birthday.

All his mother can do during the convulsions is hope they don't last long enough where she has to give Jack a shot of medicine to slow his brain activity or, worst case, call 911.

“It is hard to watch,” Colleen O'Brien said of the seizures that have also been a part of her life for most of the last decade. “I guess I naively assumed when he first started having them that some day I would get used to it. But I don't think I'll ever get used to it.”

What makes her human makes her no less of a hero to her husband. And Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien is well aware that he doesn't need a designated day to appreciate all his wife does as a mother to Jack and their 8-year-old son Michael.

“She's just like many mothers that deal with special needs children, she's on top of it 24/7, and she's just a fantastic mother,” O'Brien said. “I've definitely outkicked my coverage.”

O'Brien may be the more celebrated spouse after holding Penn State's program together following the announcement of severe NCAA sanctions and an 0-2 start to the 2012 season. But O'Brien, who won several national awards after leading Penn State to victories in eight of its last 10 games, knows the steady climb he has made in coaching would not have been possible without the sacrifices his wife has made.

“That's allowed me to pursue a passion that I have for coaching football,” O'Brien said. “She would be a fantastic lawyer but she is very supportive of what I'm doing.”

The two met while she was a first-year law student at Wake Forest and he was coaching at Georgia Tech. Colleen later transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia State to be closer to her future husband.

They had Jack in 2002, and at 13 months old, he was diagnosed with Lissencephaly, which compromises development of the brain. The disorder is severe enough in Jack's case that he cannot talk, is often bound to a wheelchair and is prone to seizures.

He takes medicine three times a day, and Colleen keeps him on a regular schedule, which also helps limit the occurrence and duration of the seizures.

She wakes Jack at 7 every morning, dresses him, feeds him breakfast and gives him his medication. The severity of the seizure Jack usually has in the morning often dictates how alert and strong he will be for the rest of the day.

It is impossible for the O'Briens to know how much Jack processes since he cannot talk. But he is able communicate by pointing, and his head snaps toward the TV any time he hears his father's voice in an interview.

Jack is like most young boys in that he goes to school — he attends a special-needs school in State College — is crazy about trucks and loves when his mother reads a book to him.

“He can turn the pages himself,” Colleen said, “which I think is one of the things he likes because there aren't a lot of things that he can control in his life so he enjoys that.”

Jack attended all but one of Penn State's home games last season, and his mother laughingly said he is more enamored with the Blue Band because of his love of music than he is with the action on the field.

Colleen frets about striking the proper balance between caring for Jack and making sure Michael also gets enough love and attention.

Her other challenges are numerous as well.

Jack often has multiple seizures a day, and the O'Briens recently learned he needs surgery to correct scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine.

This is not what Colleen envisioned years ago when she first thought about getting married and starting a family. But the blessings have far outnumbered any burdens.

Where Colleen worried that Michael might feel held back if there were things the family couldn't do because of Jack's condition his horizons have been broadened immensely. He has learned that kids have differing abilities and capabilities.

And nobody, Colleen said, can make Jack laugh like Michael can. The two have a bond that is different than the one most brothers share.

But it is priceless to their mother, and seeing them together is better than any present she receives on Mother's Day.

“I would not trade Jack for any child in the world,” Colleen said. “He's so good-natured and just really appreciates any little thing you do for him, any attention that you show to him. He's just a very sweet little boy. He's taught (us) a lot, but I think myself about being patient and not sweating the small stuff.”

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