At a time of the offseason when we seem to be up to our ears in ugly off-field news, the perseverance of James Conner is the best story going in the sport right now. On Wednesday morning the Pitt star running back joined me on The Audible podcast.
The former ACC Player of the Year who ran for 26 touchdowns and almost 1,800 yards in 2014 before missing most of last season due to a knee injury is battling back after being diagnosed in early December with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that likely started in his neck had spread into his chest.
It was interesting to hear the 20-year-old’s perspective as he talked about his journey through what had to be such an emotional roller coaster. He told FOX Sports about his doctor’s advice after giving him the diagnosis.
“Stay off Google because that’s gonna tell me everything I didn’t want to see,” Conner said, “but me being hard-headed, me being me, I was still trying to figure out things. Eventually, I stopped looking."
Conner’s story resonated with many. He told me that fellow college football stars Deshaun Watson, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry were among those who had contacted him. "They’re fantastic players and great people.”
Conner also found a “brotherhood” from folks who had their own battles with cancer.
"So many people reached out. (Former Steelers running back) Merril Hoge, (Penguins legend) Mario Lemieux, (Chiefs star) Eric Berry. I received tips from a couple of people who have been through it and beat it.
"Merril said after he would leave treatment he would go and work out. Mario just said to stay positive. (Berry) gave me a whole rundown of what to expect. We talked very frequently throughout the whole process."
Clate Schmidt, a pitcher for the Clemson baseball team who also had overcome cancer, reached out to Conner through social media and became a good sounding board and friend.
"This whole thing is a mental fight," Conner said. "It’s the fatigue and the feeling of uncertainty. The doctor made me aware that noting was guaranteed.
I just had to find motivation where I could.”
That connection with fellow cancer survivors certainly provided a big boost. Conner said he and Berry stayed in contact every few weeks.
"He told me a couple of weeks ago, ‘You don’t know how I proud I am of you.’ And that meant a lot. I know he’s busy. I’m busy. But I feel like he’s a big brother towards me. We’re very close."
Social media, which often reveals some of the uglier aspects of our society, has done the opposite in regards to Conner’s story. A good example of that came earlier this week when he received a tweet from a Michigan man he’d never met:
@JamesConner_ James…I went through what u did and want to say as I was listening to Rome I was in tears. Praying for good health 4 ever!
"Once you go through it, you’re brothers,” Conner explained. “ You’re in that brotherhood. You have that special bond. It’s crazy the connection. I just feel for them. We all have something in common. I love it when they say ‘Been through it too.’ I love that encouragement or those inspiring words from somebody who has been through it, and beat it. That means a lot when they reach out.
"Even if I don’t know ’em or this is my first time talking to them, we have something in common that is very powerful, and you don’t want to take that for granted."
Conner was honored earlier this month when he helped raise $400,000 for cancer research at a dinner hosted by his oncologist, Dr. Stanley Marks. The big running back was presented with an award that was renamed the James Conner Courage Award, an honor that will always have a special meaning to him.