James Conner burst onto the NFL scene last season, filling the void left by Le’Veon Bell with the Pittsburgh Steelers to claim a Pro Bowl nod in his first chance as a starting NFL running back.
Conner had a standout college career at Pitt, earning ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2014 as a sophomore and tallying 1,394 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns two years later as a senior.
But after playing sparingly behind Bell as a rookie in 2017, he remained a relative unknown among NFL fans before Bell’s season-long holdout gave him the opportunity for his star turn.
As football fans and fantasy managers got to know Conner the football player, they also learned his remarkable off-field story.
Conner’s stunning cancer diagnosis
Following his breakout sophomore campaign at Pitt, Conner played just one game as a junior after tearing his ACL in the season opener. While Conner received medical attention for the ACL tear in 2015, doctors discovered that he was suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Conner received treatment and announced the following spring that he was “free of cancer” before going on to his standout senior season and eventually becoming a third-round pick by the Steelers.
It’s an exceptional story, one that would be compelling even it didn’t involve a 24-year-old who had already suffered and beaten cancer to become one of the most productive players in the NFL.
Conner revealed he caught cancer just in time
Conner recently opened up about his battle with cancer in an appearance on Mike Seander’s podcast “Ya neva know: You know what I mean?”
And it turns out his 2015 prognosis was more dire than previously divulged.
Conner told Seander around the 13:35 mark of his interview that his doctor told him that had he not been diagnosed and started receiving treatment when he did, he would have had around a week to live.
“My doctor told me I’ve got about a week left,” Conner said. “He said you’ve got about a week — if you didn’t get this treated, you had about a week, at the rate it was growing.”
Sleep trouble prompted testing
Conner told Seander that he was having trouble sleeping as he rehabbed his damaged knee with the intent of returning to the field before the end of his junior season.
His doctor suggested a round of testing, and that’s when he received his diagnosis.
"I'm rehabbing for that, trying to make a comeback before the season ends. And then I'm rehabbing and s--- night and sweats, bro. I'm getting like 15 minutes of sleep a night, like going through it. Sleep, who don't love sleep? That's the worst s--- in the world, when you can sleep — ever.
“I get some tests done, and I got tumors surrounding my heart. I got tumors growing all around it. You’ve got two main veins in your chest — Hodgkin's Lymphoma.”
Conner credits knee injury with saving his life
Conner has previously credited his knee injury with saving his life, telling USA Today in 2016 that shots to his chest on the football field could have cost him his life had his condition remained undiagnosed.
“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,” Conner said. “I’d be taking shots to the chest. I could've died on the field.”
Conner is prepping now for his third NFL season and his second as the starting running back for the Steelers. With Bell now suiting up for the New York Jets, there are no questions about who the top back is in Pittsburgh.
It’s only been four years since Conner received the potentially devastating news of his unexpected medical condition. That he’s come this far this fast from the brink of death is remarkable.
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