By Jack Carney | @jackwcarney
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – A number of things helped James Conner in his victory over Hodgkins lymphoma.
The 12 rounds of chemotherapy treatment administered by Dr. Stanley Marks and his team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center certainly make the list. Also, likely, is Eric Berry, whom Conner calls his biggest inspiration. Berry, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, returned to the field in 2015 after being diagnosed with the same disease in December of 2014. And Conner’s own mental and physical toughness surely deserve a substantial share of the credit.
But there’s another important factor on the list. A goal that drove the Pittsburgh running back during his fight with cancer. His goal to become an NFL player.
This week he takes a big step closer to that dream as he participates in the 2017 NFL scouting combine.
“This right here,” Conner stated simply to reporters with regards to what helped him through his battle. “During treatments and everything, this was on my mind. Moments like this getting closer to my dream.”
In December of 2014, Conner was named Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year after running for 1,765 yards and a conference-record 26 touchdowns. The touchdown total also broke a 38-year-old school record held by Tony Dorsett, the 1976 Heisman Trophy winner.
One year later, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. The diagnosis came only a few months after a right knee injury ended his junior season.
After 11 trying weeks of chemo, Conner was declared cancer free in complete remission in May, 2016. Conner went on to play for the Panthers in the fall running for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Now with an opportunity to impress scouts, coaches and team executives; Conner says his health issues are behind him.
His knee no longer appears to be a concern evidenced by his productive 2016 campaign. The 2015 MCL tear was addressed with a repair as opposed to a total reconstruction. Conner believes his right knee is now almost stronger than the left one based on the quality of the procedure.
With regards to his cancer, Conner is still firmly in remission. A scan performed by Dr. Marks last Thursday came back clean. Conner said doctors will continue to test and monitor the situation for two years.
The running back’s long-term health doesn’t appear to be a concern for his potential NFL employers either. Conner said he hasn’t fielded many questions on the subject.
“All of the teams and the scouts, a lot of them are just saying congrats,” Conner said. “‘What you went through and how you defeated it is awesome.’ That’s what I’ve been getting a lot – a lot of congratulations.”
Prior to the combine, Conner reached out to a current NFL player with a similar story. Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar was diagnosed with and overcame testicular cancer while playing college football at San Diego State. Escobar also received positive affirmations from NFL evaluators during his combine experience in 2013.
Conner relayed Escobar’s message to the media.
“It’s a great story to tell, and teams want to be a part of it,” Escobar told Conner.
Now that the combine is here, Conner’s focus is on his game. The Pittsburgh product is a big, bruising back at 6 feet, 2 inches. He models his punishing running style after NFL greats Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore. But he’s actually dropped 12 pounds – down to 233 – from his college playing weight, perhaps in an effort to increase his speed. If scouts do have doubts about his health or abilities, a strong 40-yard dash time could certainly help alleviate them.
Conner is projected to be drafted somewhere between rounds four and six, according to multiple prognosticators.
Regardless of this week’s combine results, Conner will remain determined. After all, he’s been through challenges no other running back in this draft class has faced.
“I’ve been overcoming odds my whole life,” Conner said. “Even if I go undrafted, I’m still going in there to compete giving it everything I’ve got to make a team and make somebody proud.”
Undoubtedly, this inspirational young man has already made many people proud. And this week at the combine, he’ll take another step towards his NFL dream.