Conner has overcome cancer and two serious knee injuries on his way to becoming one of the NFL's top offensive weapons
James Conner’s narrative was already of the storybook variety, even before he took over as the focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers' rejuvenated offense this season. With an assist from Le'Veon Bell's protracted contract holdout, Conner has emerged as one of the NFL's top offensive weapons this season for his hometown team. It's just the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable journey.
Born and raised in Erie, Pa., Conner was a star at McDowell High School before signing with the Pittsburgh Panthers. At Pitt, Conner made a name for himself as one of college football's most explosive players, rushing for 1,765 yards and setting an ACC record with 26 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore. He was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and re-wrote the school record book, breaking single-season marks previously held by Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett.
Expectations were high for Conner entering his junior year, but football — and perhaps even fate — had other plans. On Sept. 5, 2015, Conner tore the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter of the season opener against Youngstown State (after two first quarter touchdowns, of course), ending his year just as it was getting started. That December, in the midst of rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, Conner discovered a lump on his chest. Tests revealed the 20-year-old had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The good news was that the disease would be treatable with chemotherapy.
As the calendar flipped to 2016, Conner refused to let his diagnosis affect his ultimate goal of returning to the Panthers’ backfield in the coming fall, intertwining chemo treatments with knee rehab and classes. It wasn’t uncommon to see videos of Conner, face covered with a surgical mask, sprinting on the treadmill, pumping weights, jumping boxes, even participating in Pitt’s spring drills, always surrounded by teammates, always positive, never wavering.
In May 2016, Conner announced he was cancer free and returning to the football program full-time. Lymphoma never stood a chance — and with Conner’s return, neither did ACC defenses. In his comeback season, Conner set the ACC record for career rushing touchdowns (49) and total touchdowns (52), earning him first-team all-ACC honors. Conner would ultimately finish his college career with 3,733 rushing yards and 56 rushing scores, second all-time in Pitt history to Dorsett while surpassing the likes of current NFL stars LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis.
The following spring, Conner was selected in the third round by — call it lucky, or even fate — the Pittsburgh Steelers one year after beating cancer. Conner would play professional football on Sundays in the same stadium he played college ball on Saturdays the previous four years, less than two hours from his hometown of Erie.
Conner spent his rookie year backing up one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in recent NFL memory in Le'Veon Bell, earning only 32 carries and 144 yards in his first season. In Week 15, Conner was dealt another blow, this time tearing the MCL in his left knee. No stranger to the surgery and rehab process, Conner once again attacked it with the same determination and ferocity he showed with the previous knee injury as well as his chemotherapy treatments.
Even before this season started, Conner was drawing rave reviews for his work during OTAs and into training cap. Once Pittsburgh realized it had come to an impasse with Bell in contract negotiations, head coach Mike Tomlin did not hesitate to name Conner his starting running back. Conner immediately seized on the opportunity, putting up 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 tie against the Browns.
As Bell’s sometimes bizarre holdout lingered, the Steelers were able to get out of their early-season funk, thanks in large part to Conner. During the Steelers’ current five-game winning streak, Conner has showed the same dynamic playmaking ability that he did at Pitt, averaging 107.8 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry, while adding 21 receptions (averaging more than 10 yards per catch), and scoring eight touchdowns.
Bell’s holdout has passed the point of no return, but it's not like the Steelers have collapsed without him. Conner currently ranks second in the NFL behind only MVP candidate Todd Gurley in touches (203), total yards from scrimmage (1,158), and total touchdowns (11). Conner has not only replaced Bell as an indispensable part of the Steelers' offense, he's out-produced him to this point (compared to Bell's 2017 season) as well.
Conner's emergence has increased the likelihood that Bell has already played his last game in a Steeler uniform. Whatever the future holds for Bell remains to be seen. But one can't help but root for Conner’s continued success. And it sure seems like he has a future playing for his hometown team.
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.