When he graduated high school in 2013, James Conner was an unknown and unwanted defensive end prospect out of Erie, Pa. In fact, Conner only received three Division I offers: Bowling Green, Toledo, and, of course, Pitt. Of the three “juggernauts,” only Pitt was willing to try the big man at tailback. Conner went on to rack up 800 yards and punch in 8 touchdowns as a true freshman.
His sophomore season continued in similar fashion. 13 games and 26 touchdowns later, James Conner, the former Erie McDowell afterthought, was now an All-American and garnering the attention of some NFL scouts.
From the Player’s Tribune:
[A]t the start of my sophomore season, I was like, This is going to be bad for the rest of the teams we play because I’m not slowing down. It was almost as if I didn’t even see the defense. I would get handoffs, and it didn’t matter who was in front of me, or who was on the opposite side…After [the second] game, teams started playing nine guys in the box against me. It didn’t matter.
He entered his junior season in the eye of a hype storm. Pitt fans were thinking 9 wins and a Doak Walker at the very least. Maybe even an ACC title game bid and a trip to a New Year’s Bowl for the first time since Larry Fitzgerald donned the blue and gold.
Then, in the first half of the season opener, Conner went down with a torn MCL. And the hype storm dissipated. The Pitt faithful feared another promising season – perhaps the last with receiver phenom Tyler Boyd – was lost.
On Thanksgiving day, after months of bizarre health issues outside of the MCL tear, Conner was told his symptoms were compatible with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A few weeks later, the suspicions were confirmed.
I was just dumbfounded, mostly. First, a torn MCL, now…cancer? If you hear about an athlete getting cancer, or a movie star, it’s like, Oh, wow, that’s unfortunate, but after that, to be honest, you kind of just go about your day. Then you hear someone say cancer in reference to you, and, all of a sudden things get … real. You recognize something, right away, when you hear those words. You realize: People die from this.
According to Conner, the toughest part of the journey to beating cancer came midway through his chemo treatments.
[T]reatment six — the halfway point of a 12-session course of treatments — that’s when things really got tough. I’m not going to say that I wanted to die right before receiving treatment six, because I wasn’t ready to leave this earth. But I definitely remember sitting in that green leather hospital chair, waiting for the nurse to mix up the chemo batch, and thinking, I do not want to be here right now. I wanted to get away, away from…everything.
But “Beast Mode” persevered. Conner rolled through his 12 treatment sessions and everyone from the Kansas City Chief’s Eric Berry, to former president Bill Clinton, to other Heisman hopeful running back Christian McCaffrey reached out to the Pitt back to offer words of encouragement.
After seeing relatives and friends’ relatives suffer through radiation and chemotherapy and how it drains them, I was amazed at how he could still practice at a D-I level. On a few occasions, I saw him walking the streets of Central Oakland, amidst a posse of scripty-clad players, like nothing was amiss, save for his powder blue mask. He could be spotted at the Panther’s South Side facility, running through drills with the rest of the offense — though he was, admittedly, “rusty.”
Nearing the end of his battle with cancer, Conner made an appearance on The Ellen Show to talk about balancing school with off-season workouts and meetings, all-the-while beating cancer. On May 23, he announced he was cancer-free.
Conner beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma this off-season and expects to be instrumental in beating Penn State this fall. When he returns to pre-cancer form, I think he should get two Heisman Trophies this January for everything he went through.
You can read the entire piece, straight from the victor’s mouth, here. Try not to cry. I promise I’m not crying – the sun’s just hurting my eyes. I’m so damn proud of this man. Hail to Pitt..
[via Player’s Tribune]
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