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Playing to his strengths, not his size

Playing to his strengths, not his size
Jake O’Brien plays for the East Bay Buccaneers football team. (Courtesy: The O’Brien Family)

RIVERVIEW, Fla. (BVM) — If you drive past the football practice fields of the Tri-County Youth Football and Cheerleading Conference in Riverview, Fla. on any given afternoon, you’re likely to see a couple of dozen or so buffed up athletes hitting the gridiron decked out in the mighty red and black colors of the champion East Bay Buccaneers.

Some are well over 200 pounds and approaching more than 6 feet tall from recent growth spurts, while some are still little and short. Whether attributed to genetics or puberty, it’s that somewhat awkward time and the physical differences become evident when lining up with the guys on the team.

Weighing in at 83 pounds and stretching to 4-foot-10, 12-year-old Jake O’Brien is one of the smaller members of the team as he heads into his seventh-grade year in the fall. And yet he’s slowly working his way to becoming one of the stars.

So what does it take to turn a short and skinny kid into a star? Grit, determination, hard work? Jake has first-hand experience with each.

“My mom and dad drug me to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. I gave my life to the Lord at the age of 5,” Jake said. “I let God lead me in the direction He wants me to go and that really gives me the strength and purpose to push through to my goals.”

And what he pushes through is the conditioning routine he established for himself. Noted as one of the harder working players on the team, Jake knows he has a size hurdle to overcome. Certainly, being small has its disadvantages in the rough and tough game of football, but what Jake lacks in size he makes up for in speed, which clearly has its place on the football field. And that speed lends itself to his ability to excel at the position of safety.

Once he realized there truly was a place for his size in the game, he tailored his training to play to his strengths. He focuses on speed and agility and has added strengthening to his individual practice routine. From months of workouts at home and even on vacation with his family, he’s buff and getting even faster.

His father, and the team’s assistant coach, John O’Brien, summed it up best.

“Jake’s a very focused kid. He’s determined and he’s tough,” John said. “His favorite saying is ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ He may not be the most talented player, but he works really hard during the off-season to be the best he can be.”

The Super Bowl winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers are just a half an hour up the road, and with the same team name, shared team colors and similar logos, some in Tampa Bay took note of the East Bay Bucs. Jake has had the opportunity to attend football camps with NFL players, and has worked out with several college and top-level high school players. And some of them certainly took note of the short and speedy kid they saw working so hard to try to overcome his size on the field, who started playing when he was 6 years old.

But it’s not just size that has posed an obstacle for Jake. As the second of four kids living in nearby Ruskin, Jake has two younger siblings whom he loves playing big brother to. One evening last fall, he wanted to surprise his younger sister and make pasta for her. On the way from the stove to the sink, the big pot of hot, boiling pasta grazed the counter just enough to knock it off balance and douse his lower body with a full pot of scalding hot water.

After two hospital stays, including a stint in the burn unit, along with surgeries and a skin graft, Jake was determined to come back stronger. The East Bay Bucs are a championship winning team — and a team they are. One for all and all for one. Jake couldn’t let the team down. Just over six months later, he was back in action, back into another off-season of grit, determination and hard work.

Jake’s not one to try and predict the future. He’s very realistic and knows his size may continue to be his biggest hurdle.

“I know God has a plan for my life so I’m just going to follow His lead,” Jake said.

Will Jake O’Brien be a future star in high school, in college, or even perhaps the National Football League? Time will tell, but for now he’s just playing to his strengths.

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