Recently, Le’Veon Bell’s locker was cleared and his season came to an end. Among all the discussion about whether he would return to the Pittsburgh Steelers by the franchise tag deadline, one story continues to fall between the cracks. Instead of debating the wisdom of his decision, we thought we would bring attention to his quick-rising replacement, whose story is as inspirational as Bell’s is baffling. His name is James Conner.
Unlike Le’Veon, James Conner has taken every snap he’s been given as an opportunity to prove himself as a distinguished runningback from the University of Pittsburgh. Coming into the league as a third round selection (105th overall) in 2017, he knew he would be playing behind the All-Pro, electric runningback Le’Veon Bell. He knew obtaining the starting spot would be an extremely tall, uphill battle, however, fighting uphill battles is something Conner is familiar with.
Conner is a 6’2”, 235-pound runner, who was named ACC Player of the Year in 2014 and an All-American as a sophomore. After running for more than 1,700 yards in 2014, catastrophe struck his junior season. He tore his MCL during the first game of the season and while rehabbing, he received news worse than just his knee injury.
Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after doctors found a lump in his chest. Although deadly, the All-American was told that this form of cancer was treatable. After his 2015 season, he spent the winter and spring in chemotherapy treatments battling sickness. His determination and motivation to get back to his team and onto the field led him to a successful chemotherapy process. He earned a cancer-free bill of health the following May just in time for his senior season.
Conner returned to the starting lineup that fall and lead his team onto the field for warm-ups for their first game against Villanova. He compiled over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns throughout the year, remaining an elite runningback in the NCAA less than four months after beating cancer.
After his senior season, he entered the 2017 NFL Draft in hope of achieving his ultimate dream of playing professional football. The moment he was selected as the 105th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, it had come full circle. Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, only 2 hours north of Pittsburgh, Conner was infatuated with the Steelers. He practiced in the same facility and the same stadium in college as the
Steelers practice and play in professionally. Now, the Steelers were the franchise that fell in love with him. The Steelers have long loved powerful running backs and with his hometown roots, Conner could be a great one.