Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is collaborating with the New York Racing Association in an effort to promote awareness about the effects of bullying. On Saturday at Aqueduct, the day of the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, the second race on the card will be named “A Salute To Liam O'Brien,” and jockeys will wear orange bands throughout the card to show their support.
O'Brien is Velazquez' nephew, and recently endured a three-month stay in the hospital to recover from depression, an eating disorder and malnutrition brought on by bullying he experienced in middle school. The boy's mother, Deirdre Fell-O'Brien, wrote about their experience in a Facebook post on Oct. 18, and the story ended up going viral; the hashtag #WeStandWithLiam was used to demonstrate widespread community support against bullying. The story was later picked up by both ABC News and the Today Show.
“(The community support) has been nothing short of really almost miraculous,” Liam O'Brien's father, Thoroughbred trainer Keith O'Brien told ABC News. “When something like this happens, you always think the worst, but I've realized how many good people there really are still out there.”
At the Breeders' Cup last month, Velazquez showed his support for his nephew with an orange leg band that was prominently displayed when he rode Forever Unbridled to victory in the Distaff. On his way back to the winner's circle, Velazquez dedicated the win to Liam in an interview with Donna Brothers on the NBC Sports telecast. He and wife Leona O'Brien are dedicated to supporting their nephew's road to recovery.
“We love him,” said Leona O'Brien. “To see your nephew in that kind of position, struggling and broken, you want to do everything in your power to help. Hopefully it will open people's eyes as to what can happen and how bad it can be. We just wanted to help in whatever way we can.”
The bullying Liam O'Brien experienced began in the seventh grade, but it escalated in the summer of 2017.
“My beautiful son Liam turned 13 years old on September 8,” wrote Fell-O'Brien in her Facebook post. “He should be in school with his friends getting excited about high school and playing soccer, but he is not. He is at a medical center in Princeton NJ being treated for depression and an eating disorder. He has actually been hospitalized for 5 weeks. He hasn't been home or slept in his bed. He hasn't been able to watch football with his dad on Sundays. How did we get here?”
After making his seventh-grade soccer team, Liam O'Brien suddenly stopped wanting to hang out with his friends and was eating noticeably less food. At the end of the school year, he was punched in the face on his way to the school bus. Rather than play soccer over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, the teen chose to go spend time at Saratoga with his father. When Liam came home, his weight loss was severe enough that he needed to be hospitalized for eight days.
His mother believed that pulling Liam out of the hospital and sending him back to school with his friends would be the best decision for her son, and went as far as to meet with guidance counselors and school staff to make them aware of his situation. When school started, things were not any better.
“Liam came home on Friday with a bruise on his face,” Fell-O'Brien wrote. “That was his birthday and we went out to celebrate that night. He didn't eat. He barely ate the rest of the weekend. He lost five pounds that first week back. That Monday he didn't go to school. We sat at the kitchen table and we cried and I said please tell me what happened. He finally couldn't hold it in anymore. He told me he was bullied terribly in seventh grade. It started when he made the soccer team. Two kids told him he sucked and shouldn't have made the team. There were unnecessary pushes and kicks. He was told he was weird, he was fat, his freckles were weird, his eyebrows were weird. They used horrible language and called him nasty words. I asked him how often it happened. He looked at me crying and said, ‘Every day, mom.'
“They broke him, he believed he was no good and stopped playing soccer because it just reminded him of them.”
Liam was admitted to the hospital for a second time, and had to be fitted with both a feeding tube and a heart monitor due to the extent of his malnutrition. He stayed in the hospital, away from his family, for an entire three months. Perhaps seeing his Hall of Fame uncle supporting him on television during the Breeders' Cup was a part of the reason that the teen was finally able to be released from the hospital.
Today, Liam O'Brien is at home with his family. He is on the road to recovery but still has a long journey in front of him. He will be present at Aqueduct on Saturday, watching all the jockeys show their support and enjoying the race named in his honor.
To donate in support of Liam O'Brien's medical expenses, the family has set up a GoFundMe page here.
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