Most years, the NFL draft has a story regarding a player trying to make it into the pros that captures the imagination of sports fans. This year’s motivated tale has to be the entry of Pittsburgh University’s running back James Conner into the draft.
Last year while on my annual visit to Pittsburgh, it made sense to take in a Pitt game as they were playing at home. Heinz Field is on the North Side, so game days you can travel the short journey in style along the Monongahela River on a clipper. On a summer afternoon, it can be an enjoyable experience. On a cold, winter morning in December, it’s best to take a seat inside and enjoy the Pittsburgh skyline in the warmth.
The game was a close affair. The Panthers initially looked as though they would overpower Georgia Tech, but five minutes into the final quarter, the score stood at 27-27. Georgia took their first lead of the game with just over five minutes remaining only to see Pitt fight back with a touchdown before winning with a field goal on the last play of the game.
James Conner had a quiet game, if you consider rushing for 60 yards mediocre, but on the season he contributed 1,000 yards with 20 touchdowns for his team. After just 30 minutes of the 2015 season, Conner suffered a season ending knee injury. While receiving treatment he was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma – a form of cancer that attacks younger people.
Much has been written about the brave fight of Conner to overcome his cancer and his battle that overcame the disease while remaining positive about returning to the game he loves. No one can imagine what impact it would have on an athlete on top of his game and with the world of professional football at his feet.
Conner took it all in his stride. “Heroic” is the word the Pitt University web site used to describe his therapy and who can argue with that? After receiving chemotherapy, he still turned out for the team’s winter workouts.
Less than four months after his final treatment, Conner was running on the grass at Heinz Field last season and I was fortunate to have decided to take in a college game in which the young man was playing. I will watch the draft from a Steelers point of view, but I will also being keeping a close eye on James Conner and hoping I will get to see him playing in black and gold.
Conner is aware of the attention he receives because of his impressive recovery, but he acknowledges the focus might detract from his athletic ability. Last week he sent out a “Letter to NFL GMs,” in which he stated that he was more confident than ever before that people will know him as a great football player rather than as a cancer survivor.”
In his revealing message he describes how he had to borrow money to travel for the Pitt trials in which he excelled and when later, he switched from defense to running back when asked by his coach. Having overcome hardship and cancer, in his note Conner stresses what he can contribute as an offensive weapon suggesting, “I’m quicker than I’ve ever been – just lighter on my feet. But, you know, I’m still big. Believe me. No one’s ever gonna be psyched about having to tackle me, bet that. If you’re looking for a tough, hard-nosed back who wears down defenses, I’m your man. I don’t set little goals. I mean, I’m trying to be in the Hall of Fame one day. That’s where I’m looking to take this. That’s where my head’s at. If that goal sounds overly ambitious, or like an unrealistic dream, just think about what I went through to get here.”
I will be looking out for James Conner and his career in the NFL.