Jared O’Brien was at Normal West High School football practice Tuesday. He was easy to spot in his red shorts and Illinois State T-shirt with a large Redbird on the front.
Both of his sporting passions were represented on this glorious, sunny afternoon … Normal West by his presence, Illinois State by his apparel. And while many aspire to be No. 1, few are considered to be No. 1 twice over.
“We always say he’s the No. 1 Wildcats fan and the No. 1 Redbirds fan,” said Chris Hawkins, Normal West’s baseball coach.
There are a lot of things to love about sports. O’Brien, 32, is one of them.
He became a regular at Wildcats football and baseball practices/games as a sophomore in high school, helping the coaching staffs in any way he could. His graduation from Normal West in 2004 didn’t stop that connection.
If anything, it accelerated it.
“I love sports to begin with, and when I got into high school they welcomed me with open arms,” O’Brien said. “We have good kids here. They’ve taken me in and supported me. The coaches have too and so have the people at ISU.”
When Normal West plays Friday night at Peoria High, O’Brien will be on the Wildcats sideline for his 16th straight football opener. He’ll also be on the team bus. The son of Dan and Nancy O’Brien of Normal is as much a part of the team as star running back Genesis Forrest. He just doesn’t get as many headlines.
Hawkins and Wildcats’ football coach Darren Hess refer to O’Brien as their “graduate assistant,” which seems fair. He is a West graduate and he’ll do anything they ask. It’s hard to assist more than that.
“He helps me in a lot of different ways,” said Hess, who has been at West since 2003. “I appreciate Jared for who he is as a person. He always makes me feel better about what I’m doing.
“You talk about family and the community aspect of it, Jared represents what we’re about as a school. We want people who care about our kids and care about our program. He spends a lot of time out here and we’re obviously really good friends. We’ve built a relationship over the past 15 years.”
It has been slightly longer for Hawkins, who met O’Brien at a West basketball game thanks to a Wildcats baseball cap Hawkins was wearing.
O’Brien approached him and said, “I really like that hat.” Hawkins replied, “I can get you one.”
“That’s where it began,” Hawkins said. “I tell him he’s kind of like that cat you gave a little milk and it kept coming back over and over.”
They laugh about that occasionally during their many hours together. O’Brien travels to every West baseball game, even on spring break trips to Gulf Shores, Ala., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
He is an unofficial ambassador for West and ISU.
“To know him is to love him,” Hawkins said. “He’s helped me in the summer and he gets to know parents and players from other schools.”
That said, O’Brien is most beloved at West, which adds two people annually to its Wall of Fame. O’Brien has been selected this year and will be inducted in October.
Clearly, the school appreciates his loyalty and passion for the Wildcats.
“I appreciate what they do for me,” he said.
O’Brien works Monday through Friday at Evergreen Village Supportive Living in Normal. He performs a variety of tasks and is well-known among the residents for loving sports.
Many began saving The Pantagraph sports section for him. Once, he politely thanked a resident but said he already had the paper. The resident became upset and began to cry. From then on, O’Brien has taken home every section saved for him … some days as many as 20.
O’Brien’s skill set includes knowing every Division I college mascot. Many have tried and failed to stump him. He also is the only one to master operating Normal West’s baseball scoreboard, which was purchased three years ago.
In baseball, he is known as “JRod.” In football, they call him “JRock.”
“He goes by many names,” Hess said. “He’s No. 1 in our hearts though.”
It's the best ranking of all.