North Gwinnett honorary captain Cooper O’Brien (1), a student at North Gwinnett Middle School, gives a pat on the back to Connor Kleid (22) prior to the start of the Class AAAAAA state championship game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome. O’Brien, who was diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma, served as an honorary captain in the first game of the season at the Georgia Dome, so the team invited him back for the title game. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)
ATLANTA — North Gwinnett’s high school football season began and ended in the same place, the Georgia Dome.
Cooper O’Brien was there for both.
The North Gwinnett middle-schooler, battling a rare cancer, donned the No. 1 jersey as the Bulldogs’ honorary captain for the season-opening Corky Kell Classic. The team invited him back for Saturday night’s Class AAAAAA state championship game with Norcross, reviving his captain duties and welcoming him with chants of “Coop, Coop, Coop.”
“It’s a lot of fun again,” said O’Brien, who was honored all season by the “CO” stickers on the helmets of the North players. “It’s fun to do it all over again. It was great the first time.”
While North fought through a 15-game schedule to reach the state finals, the 13-year-old O’Brien had an even tougher, and more inspirational, fight of his own.
He was diagnosed in May with rare clear cell sarcoma, one of the rarest of the more than 50 types of sarcoma. The aggressive cancer attacks mainly soft tissues and tends to attach to tendons in the arms and legs.
Doctors appointments and treatments have forced him to miss more school than he would like, but O’Brien works in school as much as he can.
“He still wants to go to school every day,” said Kevin O’Brien, Cooper’s father. “Some mornings he gets up and he’s not feeling good, he’s nauseous, but he’s going to school. He’s gone to school before and had to leave because he wasn’t feeling well, then after a couple of hours he feels better, and he’s ready to go back to school so he doesn’t miss a quiz or a test.
“If he can be there, he will be. He’s inspired a lot of folks around that school.”
Cooper O’Brien’s journey since the August season opener has been up and down, as is the case with nearly all cancer stories.
“We’ve been able to stabilize (the cancer) for the moment,” Kevin O’Brien said. “We’re doing some specialized testing and we’re waiting on those results. We’re getting ready to start targeted therapy. We’re hoping to get that started at the first of the year. We’ve been to Boston and we’re local, too, so we’ve got some collaboration going on it.”
The cancer fight went on the backburner Saturday night, though.
The youngster soaked up the same atmosphere he did earlier in the season, from the bus ride down to the pre-game meetings to the game itself. He admitted the team’s emotions were a little different in Game 15, sensing a little nervousness in the lead-up to the finale.
Cooper was a little nervous, too, hoping he could earn a state title ring, too.
“We are excited about being back down here where it all started this season,” said Kevin O’Brien, whose family has called Suwanee home for 18 years. “It was not too long after (the cancer) was discovered that we were down here for the season opener. To be back down here, playing for the state championship, with Cooper part of the team, that’s something special. It’s been an exciting season.”
Former foes now allies
Jeremy Muyres and Reggie Stancil wore similar white Norcross coaching shirts for Saturday’s title game, but they weren’t always on the same sideline in the Georgia Dome.
Back on Dec. 12, 1997, they went head-to-head in the Class AAAA semifinals in the Atlanta venue. Muyres’ Parkview Panthers won a thriller with Stancil and Colquitt County, 14-7 in overtime.
“That was a long time ago,” Stancil said Saturday.
“That was a defensive battle,” Muyres added.
Stancil was Colquitt’s quarterback and nearly led the Packers to victory, but Muyres and the Panthers rallied to force overtime before winning.
Sawyer makes diving pick
North Gwinnett senior Dante Sawyer showed the fans why he’s one of the nation’s top defensive end recruits on a first-quarter interception in the title game.
Norcross quarterback A.J. Bush had to chase down a bad snap in his own end zone, escaping long enough to fling a pass downfield. That’s when Sawyer raced to the sideline and made a diving interception at the Norcross 21-yard line, showing off the skills he honed as a Gwinnett Football League running back.
The interception set up a Hayden Sphire to Caleb Scott touchdown pass that put the Bulldogs up 14-0 with 1:40 left in the opening quarter.
Autry back in form
One of the heroes in Norcross’ 2012 state championship game win delivered again early this year.
Myles Autry, who caught a key touchdown pass in last year’s title win over Lovejoy, returned a kickoff 92 yards for a TD in the first quarter when his team needed it the most, cutting a 14-0 North lead to 14-6.
He was greeted after the score by a pack of Blue Devils on the sideline, including former Norcross star Alvin Kamara, another hero of last year’s win. Kamara is now a freshman running back at Alabama.
Bettis on the sidelines
Former star NFL running back Jerome Bettis was one of the many on the crowded sidelines for the AAAAAA final.
Bettis, nicknamed “The Bus” during his playing days, got face-to-face with North’s star running back, C.J. Leggett, for some inspirational pre-game talk.
In 13 NFL seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bettis rushed for 13,662 yards and 91 TDs.