Overcoming a painful childhood himself, former Princeton footballer Johnny O'Brien is perhaps the perfect person to ensure that every student at his former school gets the necessary support to succeed.
For John O'Brien, Princeton became a reality in the milking barn of the Milton Hershey School one evening in 1961, "when two Princeton coaches showed-up during evening milking." One of them, Jake McCandless, asked if he would like to go to Princeton.
"I really kind of just lost it," recounted O'Brien in a speech accepting the 2005 Princeton Citizen-Athlete award. "I just couldn't say anything because it dawned on me that this was the first time I ever felt genuinely wanted."
John and his brother, Frankie, had arrived at the Hershey School -- the legendary school for children in financial and social need endowed by Hershey Corporation founder Milton Hershey -- as small children, after their father killed their mother (The school and the boys' relatives kept this information from them until late in O'Brien's senior year of high school).
The school was hard in those days, with older boys harassing younger ones, and by its very nature the school "became your parents, the authority figure, pure control," said O'Brien. One day O'Brien was himself attacked, as he later related to the Princeton Alumni Weekly. An older boy knifed him in the thigh after O'Brien refused to do a chore for him. O'Brien ran at the older boy with a pitchfork, causing the boy to fall and break his arm.
But O'Brien thrived, being chosen as captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams, and named to the "Penn 33," Pennsylvania's all-state football team. At the time McCandless and fellow coach Bob Casciola invited him to Princeton "Princeton wasn't even on my radar. I thought I would be lucky to go to Penn State, even Slippery Rock," laughed O'Brien.
For the "Penn 33" game he roomed with Cosmo Iacavazzi, whom O'Brien already knew as a legendary high school player. He later roomed with Iacavazzi at Princeton "until he left to get married," says O'Brien. "Cos was our inspiration from freshman year on. He would outwork everybody [in practice] by a half-hour."
That self-discipline paid off. By O'Brien's junior year Iacavazzi -- a future College Football Hall of Famer -- led Princeton to a share of the Ivy title, and by senior year to a perfect 7-0 Ivy record, winning All-America honors for himself. For O'Brien, however -- whose greatest football memory is "helping my '64 team be Princeton's last undefeated team" -- football taught a different lesson.
Though a three-time letterwinner, O'Brien spent much of his Princeton football career on the bench. "It was tough to go from a starter to the bench, but how important it became in the rest of my career," said O'Brien. "I learned the value of service. Learning to be a servant leader was a key thing for me."
Majoring in psychology, O'Brien went on to earn an M.A. in psychology and education from Johns Hopkins, and then proceeded through a series of teaching and education policy positions. The lessons he learned in sports were always on his mind, however, not the least of which was the value of risk. "[I think] athletes love the energy and vitality of taking risks, the accountability, the need to stretch [one's abilities]."
In 1978 he started Renaissance Leadership, where he taught business executives some of the lessons he learned in sports. One lesson he had to remember in those early years was persistence. "When you have no clients or sales you have to be tenacious," says O'Brien, "lots of connection with sports -- perseverance." He served as CEO of Renaissance Leadership for 24 years. But in 2002 another challenge beckoned.
The presidency of the Hershey School was vacant, and O'Brien was chosen as the replacement. To reach this point he first had to get past some difficult feelings. "There's a love-hate relationship with the school," he says, "with the hazing, the railing against authority. You work through the downside of the relationship, there remains strong love and commitment."
Leading the school is a challenge. "We're blessed with Ivy-type (more than seven-billion dollars) resources," he says, "and the capability to transform the neediest kids' lives -- to become citizen leaders." To him, the challenge is "whether we fulfill this enormous potential."
Princeton recognized O'Brien's leadership at the Hershey School with its 2005 Citizen-Athlete Award, and in June 2006 he was named a Princeton University Trustee. Even had he never received these honors, O'Brien believes he received a lot from Princeton.
"The coaches there seemed to genuinely care about me as a human being," he said, "not just [as] an athlete. While it was a struggle at times, I love the ‘Orange & Black' and will always be grateful for its life-long lessons."
— Stephen Eschenbach