Nothing can ruin a football player’s season or career quite like an injury, especially when it comes to knee injuries and running backs.
Well, if James Conner hadn’t torn his MCL last September, he might not be alive.
“It was a blessing in disguise, me getting hurt,” the Pitt running back said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “First game of the season, I was a true junior and I was planning on having a huge year. Then I tore my MCL. After that, I’m recovering for that and lifting weights and stuff. I notice I start getting some symptoms – getting very fatigued, puffy (face), losing strength, sweating at night. So I’m going to the team doctors and we’re trying out different things, prescriptions, this and that. Then I went to the ear-nose-and-throat doctor because they thought it was a sinus infection. My sinuses were clear and I got a chest X-Ray and I discovered a mast cell was attached to my heart. At the biopsy, we found out it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (My knee injury) was a blessing in disguise.”
For Conner, one of the hardest parts of this ordeal was telling his four older brothers that he had cancer.
“My whole life, they’ve been my security,” Conner said. “Anything I need, I can go to them. But with this, there’s nothing they can do. None of them were doctors. So just calling them and telling them, breaking the news, they’re crying and stuff. They’re big tough guys, but they just told me, ‘You know what you have to do. You got to fight through it. You know it’s going t be okay.’ They basically just told me I got to get through it. That’s all they can do. Telling all my teammates was very difficult because I’m their leader. When they see their leader going down, it was very tough breaking the news to them. But it had to be done.”
Conner’s goal from the start was to be cancer-free, yes, but it was also to get back to football, to get back to playing the game he loves.
“That was one of my goals, to get back there on the field,” he said. “Obviously my health was No. 1, but doing what I love to do was second. There was scary moments, of course, because obviously nothing was promised with this. It wasn’t a 100 percent cure rate. So definitely scary thoughts like to creep in, but you got to push all those negative thoughts, you got to push them away. . . . I think that’s how I got through it, just having a whole support system with my whole hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, the whole hometown of where I’m at right now in Pittsburgh, and my teammates. Just having all those guys being there to take my mind off things, to talk about other stuff and just be there when I needed to count on them. No matter what time it was, they were here for me. I think that was very key – to not go through this alone. So they were just so huge and played a critical role in my recovery.”
Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore. He’s had a lot of great moments in his career.
But nothing can compare to his first carry in 2016 – a 1-yard loss against Villanova.
“First game back was a day I’ll never forget,” Conner said. “I didn’t want to make it too much about me. I know the cameras and all that kind of stuff and people were anticipating a return and stuff. But it wasn’t just me. I didn’t want make it about me. But it was nice to get the first carry. I took it all in. The pregame meal, walking out the tunnel, locker-room talk, it was just awesome to get back into the rhythm and back doing what I do. After the first carry, it was just all focus on winning the game.”
Pitt did exactly that, as Conner rushed 17 times for 53 yards and had two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) in a 28-7 win over the Wildcats. He has rushed 63 times for 281 yards – 4.5 yards per carry – and three touchdowns this year, helping Pitt to a 2-1 start. He’s also caught nine balls for 105 yards and two scores.
While Conner, 21, hopes to play in the NFL, he’s focused on leading Pitt to an ACC title. The Panthers lost at Oklahoma State, 45-38, last Saturday, but Conner expects his team to rebound this weekend against North Carolina (2-1).
“That was a great game,” Conner said of the loss to the Cowboys. “Different conference, of course, and (a) great atmosphere there. A different type of offense we’ve faced. But I think the ACC should get more respect. Louisville is doing great. This is a very tough conference and we got a great schedule ahead. (We’re going to) keep representing our conference and representing our university well.”