Longtime concert and athletic promoter Gary O'Brien, who died May 19, will be missed

·4 min read
Gary O'Brien with an Elton John street sign. O'Brien died unexpectedly May 19.
Gary O'Brien with an Elton John street sign. O'Brien died unexpectedly May 19.

Gary S. O'Brien, known to many as “the Arena Guy,” died unexpectedly on May 19.

O'Brien, 61, had been a director of communications for the Ohio State University since 2012, working on promoting concerts as well as athletic events at the Schottenstein Center and Nationwide Arena.

He grew up in Illinois, attended Illinois State University in Bloomington, and worked for many years at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall in Champaign, Illinois, where he also hosted a radio show.

Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith tweeted about O'Brien last week, “We lost a great person and colleague yesterday. Gary's passion for Ohio State will always be with us. A special person with exceptional talents and skills, but anyone who knew him loved his wonderful personality — so genuine and authentic.”

O'Brien worked closely with Tracy Hedrick, associate athletics director and chief marketing officer for Ohio State University.

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The Arena Guy

“He had such a dynamic personality, but he was also so detail-oriented, and he had a lot of integrity in what he did,” she said. “If there was a special event or concert, he took the time to learn about the artist and the fanbase. He was a director, a producer, he could do it all. Gary would never stop. He always wanted to learn more, to meet more people. He never shied away from anything,” she said. “Besides being an incredible human and just kind-hearted, he was a class act. He will be greatly missed.”

Todd Sharrock, vice president of communications and teams services for the Columbus Blue Jackets, worked with O'Brien on Blue Jackets events at Nationwide Arena.

“The thing about Gary was, he was always the first person to offer up help if you needed it,” Sharrock said. “Just a really sweet, sweet man. A great outlook, a great disposition. He loved being the Arena Guy. There's not one person in the building here, either Arena staff, team staff, that interacted with Gary at all that didn't love him. That says a lot about a person. He's left his mark, there's no doubt about that.”

Probably O'Brien's closest colleague was David Redelberger, director of interactive marketing for the Schottenstein Center and Nationwide Arena.

The two shared office space for many years, produced multiple promotional videos together, and together created the figure of “the Arena Guy.”

Gary O'Brien has a fun moment with singer Josh Groban.
Gary O'Brien has a fun moment with singer Josh Groban.

The origins of "Arena Guy"

“Shortly after Gary arrived here, we recognized that he had a great passion for show business, not just as a marketer, but as a fan. We were looking for ways that we could tap into that. There was a group of us, and we came up with the idea of there are times when things shouldn't come from a spokesperson, but from a behind-the-scenes kind of perspective. The exact origin of the 'Arena Guy' is a little shrouded in mystery, as most great origin stories are, but we came up with the idea, and it gave him license to step out of his own comfort zone.

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"Gary was kind of a conservative, quiet guy, but the Arena Guy would do anything. Gary O'Brien would never get an Elton John tattoo, but the Arena Guy absolutely would jump at the opportunity. He really embraced it. And it really grew over the years. It was a chance for him to go out and interact with the fans, or do TV appearances, or get in a barrel with a bull and a rodeo clown. The Arena Guy loved doing that kind of stuff.”

The Arena Guy was “never afraid to embrace the cringe,” Redelberger said.

More seriously, Redelberger learned a lot from the time he spent with O'Brien.

“There's a line in the movie 'Almost Famous,' something along the lines of 'You know what it means to love a song so much that it hurts?' And Gary was that guy. He had such a genuine passion for music, for concerts, for entertainment, and that passion came across in everything that he did,” Redelberger said.

“The thing that I am trying to take from Gary is that he was such a genuinely good person. He would stop and talk to every guest attendant he passed. He wasn't just trying to look good at the meetings with the arena bigwigs, but the guy who was working at the security gate or the usher at a show. He would always stop and ask them to share a little bit, and the next time he would stop and share a little story with them. He wasn't doing it to impress anybody or look cool, it was just who he was as a person.”

Funeral services will be held May 25 in Paynes Point, Illinois.


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Colleagues of 'The Arena Guy' reflect on loss of friend, coworker