It was April 26, 1983, the day of the draft. O'Brien was a senior at California-Davis, and the big thing on his mind that morning was a Spanish exam. He had no idea what was unfolding in New York. This was before the draft was a prime-time ratings bonanza, before the top prospects were invited to sit in the green room. Heck, there was no green room.
The early storyline was quarterbacks, four chosen in the first 15 picks -- John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly and Tony Eason. With the 24th pick, the Jets stunned the league, selecting O'Brien over the big name, Dan Marino, who was taken three picks later.
O'Brien didn't hear the news from his agent or from ESPN. This was the pre-Internet age, so it came the old-fashioned way -- a phone call from the coach (Joe Walton) and the man in charge of the draft (Mike Hickey). It was about 8 a.m. PST. His roommates were still sleeping.
"It was some of the greatest news to wake up to," O'Brien said in a phone interview, reflecting on the moment that changed his life.
He woke up his roommates, called his parents and, morphing back into a college student, hopped on his bike and pedaled across campus to his Spanish test. He's pretty sure he aced the test.
Thirty years ago.
It's arguably the most famous draft in history, the celebrated class of '83. It produced seven Hall of Famers -- all first-round picks -- but the hallmark of the class is the quarterback talent. No draft before or since has produced six first-round quarterbacks.
"I would think it would be hard to have six guys going again in the first round," O'Brien said.
O'Brien didn't have a legendary career, a la Elway, Marino and Kelly, but he wasn't a disappointment, either. He played 11 years (10 with the Jets), passed for 25,000 yards and played in two Pro Bowls. He always considered it an honor, not a burden, to be included in such company.
"I became friends with all those guys over the years," he said. "There's camaraderie there. Anytime we see each other, we're like brothers or old friends. It was always fun to have a connection with them."
Naturally, the fans wanted the Jets to draft Marino because he was the recognizable name. O'Brien wasn't on the lips of draftniks, professional or amateur. Late commissioner Pete Rozelle sensed the moment when he stepped to the podium to announce the Jets' selection.
"The Jets take, as a first-round selection, quarterback ..."
There was a dramatic pause by Rozelle, who seemed to be almost teasing the screaming fans at the draft.
"... Ken O'Brien of California-Davis."
Jets Nation was shocked, a feeling that would become all too common during drafts in the 1980s and 1990s.
Later that day, O'Brien saw the videotape of Rozelle. He laughed.
"I have a pretty good sense of humor, I can laugh at myself," he said. "He was playing to the crowd. The camera panned to people in the audience and they were like, 'Where? Cal what?' It was pretty funny."
Unfortunately for O'Brien, Marino landed with a division rival, the Miami Dolphins. For the better part of his career, O'Brien had to endure comparisons to Marino, one of the most prolific passers in history -- and he made a career of terrorizing the Jets. Fake-spike game, anyone?
Some athletes would've become embittered, but O'Brien, the epitome of California cool, never let it bother him. He was always gracious with the media, never snapping at anyone who asked him sensitive questions.
What people tend to forget is that, from 1984 to 1986, O'Brien held his own against Marino. They split their first four meetings, with O'Brien totaling 1,378 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Marino passed for 1,138 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.
They played in one of the most exciting games ever on Sept. 21, 1986, when they combined for 10 touchdown passes and 927 yards. The final score was 51-45 Jets, O'Brien to Wesley Walker in overtime. No one was asking questions about Cal-Davis on that day.
O'Brien attended an unofficial class of '83 reunion about 13 years ago, when the Dolphins honored Marino upon his retirement. The team invited Marino's quarterback classmates to the ceremony, and the six of them -- plus families -- spent a long weekend together in South Florida, catching up.
"It was always fun, watching and rooting for those guys," O'Brien said.
O'Brien, 52, lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he's a partner in a wealth-management company. He moonlights as a private quarterback instructor, tutoring draft-eligible players. He has worked with Jake Locker, Nick Foles, Kellen Moore and Mike Glennon, who will be drafted next week.
He still roots for the Jets. Unbeknownst to many, O'Brien was born in New York and still has family in the area. Even though he grew up in California, he followed New York sports teams, including the Jets. It was a dream to get drafted by them.
"I wish we could've won 10 Super Bowls, but we didn't," he said. "If I had to do it all over again, would I do anything different? Yeah, sure, nothing specific, but when you're older and more mature, you look at things differently.
"It didn't work out all the time, but it was a great experience. I love New York and I love the fans. I'm proud of all of it."