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The Story

A standout student-athlete in football, baseball and wrestling as well as senior and sophomore class president for Pittsburg High School’s Class of 1990 in his native California, Joe O’Brien overcame a volatile childhood and adolescence hampered by parents who were part of the California outlaw motorcycle culture with all its inherent dangers and nefarious activities.

     When he was 17, O’Brien’s father—whom he both feared and loved—died of an overdose of heroin. Plagued by an unstable upbringing and the loss of his father, football provided O’Brien the hands-on discipline and structure he often lacked. The game served as an outlet, helping him to cope with his father’s unseemly death. As a high school senior he excelled on the gridiron and displayed impressive leadership skills; he was an all-conference selection at center and defensive tackle and Pittsburg High’s most valuable player. He played in California’s North-South Shrine All-Star Game and was named a team captain.

     In college, his star grew even brighter. At Santa Clara he was named the Western Football Conference’s defensive lineman of the year as a sophomore. When the school dropped football in 1992 he transferred to Boise State and earned All-America and Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year honors his senior year. He was the inspirational leader of the 1994 Bronco team that played for the NCAA Division 1-AA national championship after the team finished 3-8 the previous season.

     He had tryouts as a long snapper and defensive lineman with the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders. Although he was strong, tenacious and tough, he never caught on with an NFL team beyond the exhibition season; at 6-foot-2, he was told he wasn’t tall enough. Nevertheless, he played for the NFL Europe League champion Scottish Claymores in 1996 and parts of two seasons with the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League. When his playing days with the SaberCats ended in 1998 he turned his attention to a coaching career in the game he loved.

     After earning his bachelor’s degree from Boise State, O’Brien worked one season as an assistant football coach at Northern Arizona before accepting the defensive line coaching position at Montana State in 2000. In 2003 he was promoted to assistant head coach at MSU. Only 30 years old at the time, O’Brien had designs on a long and successful coaching career. Fellow coaches and other observers said he had the personality and the smarts to become a head coach at the college or pro level. Coaching stardom and lucrative contracts were just a matter of time.

     But later that year he was arrested for his role in a methamphetamine ring, which stunned all those who knew him, especially his fellow coaches and players. Shortly thereafter, he resigned from his job at Montana State, and was sentenced to four years in federal prison for his role in a drug distribution conspiracy. He served two years four months, and was released in 2006.

     Since his release, O’Brienhas worked to put his life back together. Currently living in Great Falls, Montana, with his wife, Gracie, he owns and runs a construction company, serves as a volunteer for a local high school football team, and is working on a book about his life.

     O’Brien is also preparing to embark on a career as a motivational speaker, drawing upon his experiences to tell others about the mistakes he made and how to avoid a similar path that brought him to the brink of oblivion.