Running back beats cancer; aims to be drafted.
Indianapolis, IN— If it looks as though Pittsburgh running back James Conner has a larger chip on is shoulder than his fellow running backs in this draft class, it’s because he does.
The 6’1”, 233-pound Conner is the latest prospective pro athlete to successfully battle a cancer diagnosis, joining the likes of Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar (diagnosed with testicular cancer while at San Diego State) and New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, who overcame Ewing’s sarcoma while at Boston College.
Like Escobar and Herzlich, Conner has his eye on not only getting to the NFL, but enjoying a long and productive career.
Conner announced in December 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. When he first learned of his diagnosis, he, like every other person on the planet who hears the words, “You have cancer,” admitted to being afraid, but then quickly came to grips with his diagnosis, determined to put the mental and physical toughness that had underscored his productive career at Pitt toward beating the dreaded disease.
Almost nine months after his diagnosis, a period that included a surgical procedure which left a scar under his neck that he willingly showed to reporters gathered at his combine podium Wednesday, and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Conner was back on the field with the Panthers for the 2016 season as the starting running back, a year in which he rushed 216 times for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns.
While he was undergoing his treatments, Conner never lost hope and remained determined to be a part of the football program even if he couldn’t do so physically.
“We were getting a new offensive coordinator so I still wanted to be around studying that new playbook,” he said. “Just me being around my teammates has helped me lift my spirits and take my mind off all the negative. Being around those guys really made it a smooth process.”
When he wasn’t busy with studying his play book or working on his academic studies, Conner worked on creating foundation to support children diagnosed with cancer because, as he said, “Nobody wants to go through that process alone, so that’s what I was working on my foundation for, to help kids with cancer.”
After the 2016 season, his last in the Panthers program, Conner had amassed 3,733 rushing yards on 668 carries and 523 touchdowns, adding another 412 yards on 30 catches with four touchdowns. In June 2016, he was presented with the school’s inaugural “James Conner Courage Award” by Dr. Stanley M. Marks, his oncologist and the chairman of the UPMC CancerCenter.
With his attention turned toward the NFL, Conner, who as of Thursday said he had not heard from the Giants during the combine, went to work hard on getting himself ready for his journey to the NFL. Conner slimmed down from 245 pounds to 233, his goal to play in the 230-235 range at the next level.
He also showed up at the combine with his latest clean PET scan in hand, one taken a week prior to his arrival, prepared for the extra questions about his health in addition to the routine.
“Some of the doctors (at the combine) don’t know (about his treatment), like when we do the head and neck test and they ask me about the scar on my neck, and I just explain it to them. I tell them that I had Hodgkin lymphoma and that I’m clean.”
What Conner really wants teams to come away with is his willingness to contribute to an offense looking to add some firepower to its running game and some good old-fashioned ACC division toughness to the field.
“I think the ACC is top of the line conference. I think every game, there are no slouches; you have to bring it. Obviously, it’s the best of the best, so playing in the ACC I definitely feel is going to (enable me to) translate my play to the NFL,” he said.
Conner, who has done some training with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with whom he shares an agent, also has the backing of a talent-rich alumni class from Pitt that includes Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett, and current NFL star Larry Fitzgerald.
“All those guys reached out during chemo and constantly reached out after during games, so I feel blessed to have a great relationship. It’s just the simple stuff: Do you, be yourself, because there’s no faking that.”
Nor is there any faking that huge chip on his shoulder when it comes to what he can bring to an NFL team.
“I ask the coaches, ‘What do you guys want in a RB?’” he said. “They tell me they want a tough guy. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none. I just been through so much and I think I’m more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.”