By MIKE ECKERT
---- — GLEN LAKE — When Mike O'Brien graduates from Glen Lake this spring, he'll do so with 12 varsity letters.
Four apiece in football, basketball and golf.
It's been a long and illustrious career for O'Brien, but his mark on the school goes well beyond the playing fields.
"Mike O'Brien defines the true meaning of being an outstanding student-athlete," Glen Lake athletic director Mark Mattson said. "His excellent leadership within our student body, incredible success in the classroom and the accolades received for participation in three sports are truly second to none. But what may be as or more important is what a genuine human being Mike is. His citizenship and sportsmanship, humble personality, respectfulness and care for others, and the way he conducts himself in all instances, are simply amazing traits for a young person. And he displays them all, day in and day out."
A 4.0 GPA student, O'Brien is waiting to hear back from Princeton. If accepted, he could be a preferred walk-on with the football team.
For now, though, O'Brien is focused on wrapping up his high school basketball career, and he'll still have golf left in the spring.
While finishing a high school career with 12 varsity letters is a significant accomplishment, it almost didn't happen for O'Brien.
"I thought I would be four years in basketball, but never football," O'Brien said. "As a freshman, I never thought I'd play varsity. But the JV program got suspended for a couple of games and I got playing time."
Lakers coach Jerry Angers ended the JV program with a couple of games to go that season and saw solid contributions from O'Brien and his fellow freshmen.
"He was so competitive, he wasn't going to let the guy across the line from him beat him," Angers said. "It didn't matter if he was a senior or a freshman."
That group improved throughout the years, including a 9-2 campaign this fall and a Northwest Conference title.
"Coach Angers has affected this program in so many wonderful ways," O'Brien said. "He really helped me blossom as a football player and showed me all the life lessons football teaches. And there is no feeling like running on to a field on a Friday night. There's nothing like it. Nothing compares to it."
Somewhere in his high school career, O'Brien switched from looking at playing basketball at the collegiate level to pursuing football.
"I always trained for basketball, but I never thought of myself as much of a football player," O'Brien said. "As the years have gone on, I've started to love both sports equally."
O'Brien's basketball career as a freshman also began with some time on JV — albeit a brief stint.
"He asked me during the eighth-grade season what he had to do in order to be on varsity as a freshman," Lakers basketball coach Todd Hazelton said. "I told him he's got to be in the gym everyday working on it. And every day, after school, he was there, in the lobby doing sprints and sliding, lifting and shooting baskets. Then comes his freshman year and he asks me where I want him to sign-up. I said 'JV.' His face turned beat red and he was not happy about. He took it out in his first week of JV practice, and he was awesome. That made the decision for us that he was one of the top-five players in the school as a freshman, so he's coming up to varsity."
Instead of sulking about his assignment to the lower ranks, O'Brien used it as motivation.
"I was expecting to be on varsity and I had trained for three years to be on varsity," he said. "It killed me inside to be on JV. So ever since then, not making my goals pushed me to bigger things."
Last year, O'Brien averaged 21.6 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Lakers while earning All-State honorable mention status in Class C. This year, he's averaging more than 20 points a game leading Glen Lake to a 7-1 record.
O'Brien still has a season of golf this spring, where he'll be looking to play in the state finals for a fourth time.
"State finals have been rough to me the last couple of years," O'Brien said. "I broke my driver last year at states, but I didn't realize it until after I was done playing. I felt so stupid. I played the worst two rounds of the year with a broken driver. I kept trying to hit it, but it was all duck hooks."
O'Brien's dad, Fred, coaches the golf team. He said playing for his father adds to the enjoyment.
"Golf is fun," O'Brien said. "I'm going to enjoy it now until I'm 80 years old. That's something I play more for fun, but I'm a competitive guy, so when it's golf season I'm looking to win and compete at the top level."
Athleticaly, it's easy for O'Brien to point to who pushed him, especially at an early age. It was his brother Matt, who is two years older than the Lakers senior.
"He is what instilled my competitive spirit," O'Brien said. "I would lose 20 games in a row in basketball in the driveway. I hated it, I absolutely hated it. He would go inside after we were done and I'd go out and shot. Golf too, and lifting weights for football. I wanted to beat him. That pushed me to be a better athlete."
Matt and Mike O'Brien were teammates at Glen Lake before Matt graduated in 2011. He's currently a sophomore at the University of Michigan, carrying a 3.8 GPA and is applying to the Ross School of Business.
Off the field, another Laker standout made an impact on the younger O'Brien.
"I grew up watching Andrew Milliron play," O'Brien said. "I don't know if he was All-State even, but I went to his basketball camps. He said 'I don't do drugs, I don't drink or anything like that.' That's what I idolized. I didn't idolize the fact that he was a really good player. I idolized what he stood for and all his characteristics. So that's how I tried to leave my mark. Not necessarily being the greatest athlete ever, but being a good guy who worked hard in the classroom and did the right thing off the field too."
No doubt, O'Brien has been influential on his peers at Glen Lake as well.
"You have two different types of leaders. You have the vocal leader and you have the lead by example," Angers said. "Mike is able to do both. He was able to tell kids what's right and what's wrong. He doesn't shy away from confronting them. He's able to combine both of those leadership skills into one, and he was one of the best I've ever coached at both of them."
It looks like O'Brien's athletic career will carry on to the collegiate level. He has an offer from Michigan Tech to play football, as well as interest from the Princeton team if he gets into the university. He should find out if he's accepted sometime in April.
"I always thought D-1 or bust," O'Brien said. "But looking at some of the programs that have talked to me, and how great the academics are there, I want to go to a school with good academics, first and foremost. I won't be playing in the NFL, most likely, so I want to go to a great school. I went out to Princeton, I loved the campus and the people were really nice. I went to Michigan Tech and met all the football players. They were some of the coolest guys I've ever met.
"I think it'll be a tough decision either way. The trip to Michigan Tech was a lot of fun and there's a lot of cool guys there. I've got to take that into consideration."
After college, O'Brien is looking at doing something in the medical field. Currently, he's doing an internship at the Long Lake Animal Hospital.
"One of my best friends, Matt Omerza, his dad is the head anesthesiologist at Munson," O'Brien said. "I think he's a great guy and has a great job, so I'm considering that field. And I know the people that run the animal hospital and they're great people, too. They said if I wanted to learn a little bit about medicine, even though animal and human medicine are different, there are some correlations. So I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about medicine."
Whatever his path, he'll likely attack it the same way he has academics and athletics in high school.
"I think the most incredible thing about him is his work ethic," Hazelton said. "When he puts his mind to something, he'll work at it until he gets it."