James Conner's success shouldn't be a surprise: 'He’s beaten cancer. You cannot beat a guy like that'

Eric AdelsonColumnist
Yahoo Sports

James Conner’s old friend saw the Steelers game on Sunday. Saw his two touchdowns. Saw the offensive line go nuts for him.

Saw the hairdo.

“He gotta get rid of that,” Rachid Ibrahim deadpans. 

Maybe he’s not deadpanning. He seems serious. Over FaceTime, Conner’s former roommate told the running back to fix the lettuce.

“I’m just trying to step out, man,” Conner laughed.

Conner has changed styles a lot. In high school he had a wild mane. He cut his locks after he was yanked down by his hair on the field, and his mom was a little bummed. Conner has since gone to a faux-hawk, a mullet and more traditional cuts. 

What everyone in Pittsburgh knows, of course, is that Conner can wear his hair however he pleases. Because there was a time when cancer took that hair away.

James Conner is off to a flying start this season for the Steelers as he rushed for 135 yards in Week 1 against the Browns. (AP)
James Conner is off to a flying start this season for the Steelers as he rushed for 135 yards in Week 1 against the Browns. (AP)

Conner’s doctor at UPMC, Stanley Marks, does not sugarcoat: “The mass was enormous,” he says. The growth in Conner’s chest was unusually large, 14 to 15 centimeters. It was putting pressure on his heart, causing the then-Pitt running back night sweats and facial swelling. If left untreated, Conner’s life was at risk.

It came as a shock to everyone. Conner was the reigning ACC Player of the Year, a bulldozer of a running back who was recruited in high school as a defensive end. Once at Pitt, he rushed for nearly 500 combined yards in a pair of games as a sophomore in 2014. Only an MCL tear in 2015 slowed his path to the NFL. Then there was another health concern — a much more serious one.

Ibrahim was Conner’s teammate and roommate at Pitt. He remembers Conner telling him about the possible diagnosis right before the team played Miami. He said the doctors didn’t know for sure if it was malignant. “If it is,” Conner said, “I’m gonna beat it.” 

Ibrahim wasn’t surprised at the confidence then and isn’t surprised now. 

“That’s him,” he says.

Conner had Hodgkin Lymphoma, stage 2b, and he needed chemo. Marks fretted over whether to add radiation, as there was a risk to his lungs (not to mention his football career). He consulted with oncology doctors across the country and decided to hold off. But Conner would need a port, and flushing it caused him “horrendous nausea and vomiting,” Marks recalls. 

The doctor offered Conner a chance to take chemo in a private room. The running back said no thanks. “I want to be out with the other patients,” he said.

So there was Conner, walking around with his IV pole, signing hats and taking photos. “I have cancer too,” he would tell strangers. “I’m getting chemo, just like you.”

Meanwhile Conner would continue to be a part of the Panthers, attending practice, hanging out in the weight room, and, yes, training. Marks worried some about Conner sprinting on the treadmill; everyone else just marveled. Dorin Dickerson, then a wide receiver in the NFL, remembers the sight of Conner working out, wearing a mask. 

“I couldn’t imagine being a teammate of his and every day going out to practice and he’s fighting for his life,” says Dickerson, who now hosts a radio show in Pittsburgh. “The mantra was, ‘Be good people like James.’ That trickled to the community. It was businesses, the whole city. We just embraced his journey.”

The mass subsided. After 12 chemo treatments, Conner announced he was cancer-free in May of 2016. His return against Villanova that fall is one of the most beloved moments in recent Pitt football history.

Marks got calls from a few teams around the NFL about Conner. Executives loved the story, but what was the chance of a relapse? Marks estimated the chances were — maybe 10 percent? — but he couldn’t guarantee anything. Only after about three years do the chances really diminish. 

The Steelers took him in the third round. Conner’s new jersey flew off the shelves, vaulting the black and yellow No. 30 to the top of the league, even though he was locked behind superstar Le’Veon Bell on the depth chart.

Then there was yet another MCL injury, which ended his rookie season. Still, coach Mike Tomlin called Conner “a big part of the equation” last March. Conner was a bigger part than anyone knew. Bell’s holdout vaulted him into the starting backfield of one of the best offenses in football. Most expect the second-year player to cede the role back soon. Those who know Conner aren’t so sure.

James Conner, who battled cancer, receives treatment from Dr. Stanley Marks. (Photo courtesy of UPMC and University of Pittsburgh)
James Conner, who battled cancer, receives treatment from Dr. Stanley Marks. (Photo courtesy of UPMC and University of Pittsburgh)

“James Conner is a guy, one of the few people on this Earth, I would never bet against,” says Dickerson. “He’s beaten cancer. Two knee surgeries. You cannot beat a guy like that.”

When Conner scored his first NFL touchdown on Sunday, it wasn’t just a celebration for the notably enthusiastic offensive linemen who crowded around him him, it was a moment for all of Pittsburgh. Marks was at home, watching on the couch. His wife went nuts, only to notice her husband wasn’t leaping off of his seat at the score.

He was crying.

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