Nearly a year ago, on Thanksgiving Day, James Conner found out he had cancer. Six months ago, he completed the last of 12 chemotherapy treatments. Saturday, the powerful Pittsburgh running back will be jackhammering through the Miami defense, just like he used to.
“Here he is the big bruiser he was before, and maybe even better,” UM coach Mark Richt said.
Conner’s comeback has been one of the most compelling stories of the college football season. His high-scoring Pitt Panthers (5-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) face UM’s (4-4, 1-3) dynamic defense at 12:30 p.m. at Hard Rock Stadium.
Containing Conner will be essential to UM’s effort to break its four-game losing streak. The junior has rushed for 672 yards and scored 12 touchdowns for an offense that averages 38.1 points per game.
“When your leaders are very tough people that raises the toughness of your entire team,” UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “The way he runs and runs through tackles — everyone on our team is going to have to be in the mood to tackle him because he will find the guy who’s not and can really punish you.”
Conner was ACC Player of the Year in 2014, scoring 26 touchdowns and surpassing Tony Dorsett to set three Pitt records. The Erie, Pennsylvania, native led the nation in broken tackles. The 6-2, 250-pounder plowed over people or stiff-armed them out of his path.
“I was invincible, and then, all of a sudden…I wasn’t,” Conner wrote in an article entitled “Nothing is Guaranteed” for The Players’ Tribune.
In the 2015 opener, he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. During rehab, he noticed strange changes in his body: Fatigue, night sweats, bloating. A chest X-ray led to a PET scan, biopsy and diagnosis of Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Conner told teammates in a tearful meeting. His type of lymphoma was 85 percent curable.
“That’s another thing you do when you get cancer: You tell people you’re gonna be fine,” he said. “You really never know, though.”
A port was placed inside Conner’s chest, above tattoos of his mother’s name and a cross. Coach Pat Narduzzi, whose father died from Hodgkin’s, or teammates would visit during his day-long treatments.
“The first time you pee after receiving chemotherapy, it’s red. Not just kind of red, or pinkish, I’m talking briiiiiiight red,” Conner wrote. “It’s the chemo medication leaving your body.”
During the sixth treatment, Conner hit a wall. He felt depleted by the routine, the vomiting, the pain, the uncertainty.
When your leaders are very tough people that raises the toughness of your entire team. The way he runs and runs through tackles – everyone on our team is going to have to be in the mood to tackle him because he will find the guy who’s not and can really punish you.
Manny Diaz, UM defensive coordinator about Pitt running back James Conner
“Everything about my life, my identity and my future had been transformed,” he wrote. “And sitting there, in that stupid chair, with four inches of plastic tubing hanging from my chest, waiting for some bags of liquid to arrive so their contents could be injected into me, I not only couldn’t feel my body, but I also couldn’t recognize myself.
“I was tired and weak.”
Conner rallied. He watched highlight films. He got pep talks from cancer survivors and letters from Bill Clinton, Mario Lemieux, Dalvin Cook, Larry Fitzgerald. He made friends with his fellow chemo patients. After treatments, he exercised on the treadmill. He began working out with the team, wearing a surgical mask to protect his immune system. The day after one treatment, he was at spring practice.
On May 23, his doctor told him he was in complete remission. Conner’s tweet made it onto a Times Square scroll: “Just got the call that my body is clean of cancer. Been a long road but God had my back. Thanks everyone who said prayers.”
After losing considerable muscle mass, Conner is up to 235 pounds.
“If you saw him in the hospital getting poison pumped into his body to kill this cancer, it’s amazing what he’s done, and he’s continued to get better,” Narduzzi said.
Conner rushed for 141 yards, three touchdowns and even moonlighted for several plays on defense in Pitt’s 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech. Pitt places GPS devices on players and Conner’s numbers are improving.
“He’s practicing at a higher speed now than he did four weeks ago,” Narduzzi said. “He played the last game at 20 mph, in previous games he was at 18 and I told him we’re going to crank it up to 21 mph on Saturday.”
After the Tech loss, Conner vowed to get faster.
“Me and emotion,” he said. “You’re going to see it every time I put the pads on because there’s a chance the game was going to be taken away from me.”