February 12, 2020

Diagnosed with a pediatric brain tumor, freshman Kyle O’Brien defies death and disability to coach Centenary’s team.

HACKETTSTOWN, N.J., Feb. 12—Centenary University freshman Kyle O’Brien knows a lot about defying the odds. It all began at age 8, when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

Doctors predicted that the sports-loving kid would:

  • Die three months after diagnosis
  • Spend his life in a wheelchair
  • Need special education classes
  • Give up the sports he loved

Kyle’s response: a resounding, “No way!” With fierce determination, he fought back. Kyle’s parents, Jen and Pat O’Brien, searched the country for the right doctor. The Hopatcong, NJ, youth endured grueling chemotherapy and radiation, as well as multiple surgeries to treat the non-malignant tumor in his brainstem. The treatments left him weak, affecting his reflexes and making him unable to walk. Kyle pressed on, attending school in a wheelchair, but dragging himself onto the family’s treadmill in the evening to build his strength. Eventually, he would spend three hours on the treadmill each night.

Throughout Kyle’s treatments, his mother insisted that he continue going to school, although his elementary school offered to send a home tutor. The kid who doctors predicted would suffer from severe memory loss instead became an honor student.

Thankfully, the tumor stabilized and Kyle grew stronger. A glaring problem remained: he missed sports. By then a teenager, Kyle channeled his passion into coaching, attending coaching camps and learning all he could before stepping up to help coach the Hopatcong High School basketball and baseball teams for four years.

Today, Kyle’s tumor has remained stable for nine years. He is a freshman at Centenary University, where he helps to coach the University’s men’s basketball team. His job: breakdown of films and special situations. After spending a full day in classes—where he maintains a perfect 4.0 average—and the team’s practice, Kyle goes home to settle into homework and several hours of analyzing film. He’s generally finished at about 1:30 a.m., grabbing a few hours’ sleep before starting the next day at 6 a.m. Kyle’s dedication to academics and coaching is a key part of his determination to keep the tumor at bay.

While Kyle’s position is unpaid, Assistant Coach Paul Jones is quick to point out that this is no sympathy position. “We really consider him a part of the staff,” said Jones, who met the O’Brien family when coaching Kyle’s younger brother, Jason. “Kyle is really good at diving into special situations. When another team is running a play, Kyle calls it. He’s been lights out for us with that.”

At first, players may have found it odd to be coached by a freshman. That has quickly faded. “The respect they give me is unbelievable,” Kyle explained. When things get tough on the court, Kyle delivers an important message: never give up. He tells players, “You can have a bad day and not score. You can get hurt and be out a week. It’s not the end of the world. I can never play again, but I didn’t sit and feel sorry for myself. I found another way to pursue the career I love.”

Someday, Kyle would like to coach on the college level, or become a college athletic director. A Centenary business major with a concentration in sports and entertainment management, he is hoping to launch his career by becoming a graduate assistant at a Division I university.

At the beginning of the season, Centenary’s coaching staff dubbed Kyle “Kobe,” after NBA legend Kobe Bryant. That moniker has taken on extra special meaning with the recent death of Bryant. “Kyle is our hero,” Jones explained. “He’s the engine that gets us going. Every day, we look at him and say, ‘If he can do it, why can’t we?’”


Founded in 1867 by the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, Centenary University’s academic program integrates a solid liberal arts foundation with a strong career orientation. This mix provides an educational experience that prepares students to succeed in the increasingly global and interdependent world. The University’s main campus is located in Hackettstown, N.J., with its equestrian facility in Washington Township. The Centenary University School of Professional Studies offers degree programs at two locations, Parsippany and Edison, as well as online and at corporate sites throughout New Jersey.

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