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Of Power and Passion: O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative

Of Power and Passion: O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative

Above: Nancy Frates addresses more than 500 student-athletes during this year's O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative in the Mahoney Wellness Center.


The late Pete Frates ’03 was the kind of player and person New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator ’88 Bill O’Brien would have loved to coach. As a St. John’s Prep athlete, each was a no-brainer team captain. As adults, both were early adopters of the ideal that serving others is the greatest form of self-care. So, when the Prep athletic department chose the story of Pete Frates—as told by his Cure for ALS-advocate Parents, Nancy and John—to hit leadoff on Monday for the O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative this academic year, the parallels for more than 500 high school and middle school fall season athletes in attendance yesterday were too rich to ignore.

O’Brien’s relationship with St. John’s as a teenager was formative. He says it’s where he “started to learn about leadership.” The same is true for Frates. But providence pushed Frates to the forefront of a global movement at the age of 29, and Frates didn’t shrink from facing long odds and high stakes. Ever humble, O’Brien would tell you it took a bit longer for him to make his mark as a professional and as a philanthropist; he was still coaching running backs at Georgia Tech when he was 29.

Frates, who died at 34 in 2019 due to complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was called to action earlier and differently. And he answered.

“As a student athlete, no matter what your sport, no matter what your program, no matter what your role, you and your team have a platform,” said Head of School Ed Hardiman at this week’s event. “Our hope is to encourage each of you to use your platform to be a force for good at St. John’s. Some of you may not know the story of Pete Frates, and how he took on an incredible challenge of a terminal diagnosis at a very young age and became a force for good. 

Hardiman went on to explain that even though Frates gradually lost the use of the muscles that were so seminal to his identity as a student-athlete, he changed the world and he changed the trajectory of research for ALS. A few weeks after being diagnosed, Frates said ‘I know that I have a bigger cause in this world and I’ve been searching for it for a while now, and I know now what it is and how I’m going to make a difference.’

Above: Principal/Associate Head of School Keith Crowley, John Frates '76, Nancy Frates, Andrew Frates '06, and Director of Athletics Jameson Pelkey.

Frates ultimately sparked a cultural phenomenon by popularizing the Ice Bucket Challenge during the summer of 2014. As a result, multiple charitable initiatives in association with “Team Frate Train” and Pete Frates #3 have raised more than $220 million worldwide to find a cure for the disease. 

“Pete is a real-life example of a person who walked these hallways and wore your uniforms and listened to his Head of School, and it wasn’t that long ago,” said Nancy Frates. “He said ‘Be the best version of yourself and inspire others to do the same.’ That’s all he ever tried to do. He knew that if he was the best he could be every day, when adversity came, he’d be ready for it.”  

That preparation led to an as-yet unmatched viral charitable global sensation.

“In my world, Pete Frates is a hero and Pete Frates is someone who used his platform to do good throughout an incredibly trying experience,” Hardiman said. “If you open your heart and you open your mind, Pete’s story is going to be a really positive message for you, your team, and our school.” 

That was certainly the impression three-sport athlete Jake Vana ’24 walked away with following the 48-minute event during which the crowd sat in rapt attention. 

“I think my top takeaway was that no matter who you are, you should always strive to get the best out of your peers rather than focus on yourself,” he said. “I think Pete Frates is a huge reason why we have had success as a community and in athletics. His impact on the world changed so many lives, but I never realized how much of an impact he had on who we are as a school community today.  Everything Pete did was for others. As student-athletes and senior leaders, we have to use our presence on campus not to bring ourselves glory, but to bring the best out of everyone, because that’s what real leaders do. They do that by being passionate, genuine, and not having a fear of being great.”


Focusing on sportsmanship, teamwork, perseverance, and grit, the annual, year-long leadership program made possible by a gift from O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, is a collaborative, student- and coach-focused program that develops and enhances leadership opportunities for both young people and the adults who mentor and advise them. These connections are manifested in community service opportunities specifically available to student-athletes in the Prep athletic program and, among other benefits, through small- and large-group celebrity and alumni speaking engagements designed for St. John’s athletes. 

To date, dozens of such appearances have taken place. The football program has advanced the initiative to the point where a different alumnus speaks to the team on a weekly basis.

“I don’t believe your leadership style is cemented in stone when you’re 14 or 15,” said O’Brien during a campus visit in 2019 announcing the program. “The type of characteristics I’ve seen in great leaders—dependable, great work ethic, capable of putting ego aside, really good listeners, and really good communicators—that is the starting point for this program: to instill and enhance those traits in the guys that go to school here. The training you get for life after college starts here. It did for me, and that’s what I hope this program builds on.”

Above: John Frates '76 converses with a student at the O’Brien Family Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative.

Today, O’Brien defines great leadership as ‘small ego, big mission; we before me; love and accountability; grace and honesty; demanding but not demeaning; loving but not enabling; high standards with a low tolerance for excuses; and being a good listener.’

The words bear a striking resemblance to how everyone who knew him describes Pete Frates. In fact, Frates’ epitaph is essentially a digest version of O’Brien’s terminology: ‘Be passionate. Be genuine. Be hardworking. And don’t ever be afraid to be great.’

“He lived a life of humility,” Nancy Frates told the crowd. “He knew what his limitations were, but he also knew what his gifts were. He was also very introspective and knew that God had given him certain gifts and it was his duty to go out and use those gifts to the best of his ability to help his teammates, his friends, his family, and those around him. He was always learning. He was always listening. He was always looking to his mentors. He was the ultimate servant-leader. He led with empathy, kindness, and inclusion. He was always building community, and that’s what he did with the Ice Bucket Challenge. I hope all of you here can take that attitude home with you.”