Nobody knows adversity like Pitt running back James Conner does. In fact, Conner and Adversity are on a first name basis with each other.
At the beginning of last season, he tore his MCL, ruling him out for the rest of the season. That was September. Conner was a projected high-round pick in the draft (a top five prospect at running back), but after his injury, he realized that his dreams may well have to put on hold or placed on the shelf forever.
Then, in December, during the course of his rehab, Conner started experiencing a litany of symptoms: dizziness, facial swelling, shortness of breath. After a gamut of tests, a PET scan finally discovered a large cancerous mass. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After a highly-aggressive chemotherapy treatment, he was declared cancer-free in May. Conner had a promising training camp, and he was cleared to return to the gridiron on Saturday, September 3rd. For those of you not keeping count at home, Conner went from tearing his MCL, to being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, to beating cancer, and finally back to playing in a college football game–all in a 12 month span.
He calls the knee injury a blessing: “If I never had this knee injury I would’ve been on the field and I probably would’ve been feeling out of shape and that I’ve got to work even harder. I’d be taking shots to the chest. I could’ve died on the field,” Conner said. “I’m very thankful for my knee injury — I know He did that to save my life. … He didn’t want to harm me when He did my knee injury. He did it to save me.”
The former ACC Player of the Year isn’t quite the same player he was last year–and who would be after an intense chemotherapy regimen?–but he’s more than the emotional or spiritual leader of the Pitt Panthers; James Conner is still a monster. He’s a bruising back who’s on his way back to filling out his 6-2 frame. Conner himself admits that he is not as strong as he was a season ago, but it’s not readily apparent that he’s only five months removed from undergoing chemotherapy.
“Fear is a choice,” Conner said at the public announcement of his illness, “and I chose not to fear cancer. We’re gonna fight it, and we’re gonna beat this thing.”
Let that quote sit for a minute.
Fear is a choice.
Wouldn’t Conner know?
Although it’s easy to make this a story about talent, James Conner’s is much more than that. He was (and still is) a great running back. That shouldn’t be the reason Conner’s story is so compelling, but it is.
More important than it being comeback story: it’s a testament to human will, to resiliency, to toughness. Conner’s story is not about making you feel bad about your accomplishments relative to his; it’s about being inspired by his turnaround.
Oklahoma State fans ought to give him a long, heartfelt ovation on Saturday.