Entering his junior season in 2015, Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner faced high expectations after exceptional freshman and sophomore campaigns. But after just eight carries into Pitt's first game, Conner's season was over. The 21-year-old suffered a torn MCL. Ironically, the injury that ruined his year might have saved his life.
During his rehab, Conner had a bad cough and severe night sweats, and his face swelled up during workouts. After a sinus infection was ruled out by an ear, nose, and throat specialist, a chest X-ray was ordered. After further tests, Conner was given devastating news: He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I was a little scared, but I knew I could handle my business,” Conner said. “I wasn't ready to leave. I wasn't ready for death or anything like that. You just realize you've got a tough task at hand, but you've got to get ready for a fight.”
Conner was told the success rate of his chemotherapy was 85%. He watched his Panthers play their regular-season finale against Miami on November 27, and told his teammates about his cancer diagnosis a week later. Head Coach Pat Narduzzi had to rally the team.
“I brought them together and I said we’re going to beat cancer together,” Narduzzi said. “He’s not going to do this by himself.”
Before his diagnosis, no one could stop Conner on the football field. Pittsburgh recruited him as a defensive end out of McDowell High in Erie, Pennsylvania. After his freshman season, Conner switched to running back full time. He led the team in rushing yards (799), and rushing touchdowns (8). Conner showed the world he would be a force to be reckoned with during his performance at the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. He was named the MVP of the game after rushing for 229 yards and one touchdown. Conner set a school record for rushing yards in a bowl game.
He had his best season to date as a sophomore. He rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was the leading rusher in the ACC, and the seventh leading rusher in the FBS. He won the awards for ACC Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year. He was also named first-team All-ACC and an AFCA first-team All-America. One year after his dominant season, Conner would face his toughest opponent yet: cancer.
Over the next six months, he endured 12 chemotherapy treatments. His mom, Kelly Patterson, was by his side for every treatment. Many of his teammates, as well as Coach Narduzzi, took turns keeping James company. This support is what helped get him through the dark times.
“My teammates and family were always there for me,” Conner said. “I never went through this alone. With them being there for me, having that support, it helped me a lot.”
Hillman Cancer Center offered Conner a private room, but he didn’t want to be isolated. Instead, he walked around the hospital and talked to patients. Despite the grueling treatments, Conner still took part in spring practice while wearing a mask.
“It was pretty cool because once he told us the news, we were all pretty bummed,” offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty said. “But then going through his treatments and showing up the same day to come work out with us showed us if he can do it, anyone can do it."
He didn't let his condition get in the way of his giving back. In 2015, Conner received an award for his work with the National Kidney Foundation (an issue affecting his family and friends), and was named to the AFCA Good Works Team for his work with the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Conner stated that he wants to start his own foundation for young kids with cancer.
Conner also befriended Ian Malesiewski, a 16-year-old wrestler from his hometown of Erie, PA. Ian was injured in a wrestling match and is paralyzed from the waist down. Conner visited Ian often while he was hospitalized in Pittsburgh. Ian is home now, but Conner still visits him every Monday.
Six months after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Conner received some thrilling news: he was cancer-free. Now that he was healthy, Conner was gearing up for his senior season. The team was happy to have him back.
“He’s a great leader,” Bisnowaty said. “It’s really exciting to see him lead by example. He’s a great person on and off the field. He’s a lot of fun to play with and block for.”
Conner’s first game back was against Villanova at home. He had two touchdowns.
“It was just an awesome feeling to be back out there doing what I love, back out there with my teammates, and the atmosphere again, touching the ball," Conner said. "Just doing what I love is priceless.”
Conner has been a key part of a Pittsburgh team that will be playing Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl. He has rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and he also has four receiving touchdowns. He was first-team All-ACC and set the ACC career touchdown record in Pitt’s win over Duke. Conner became the fifth running back in Pitt history to rush for 1,000 yards in two different seasons, joining school legends such as LeSean McCoy and Tony Dorsett.
Although the chemo took a lot out of him, Conner feels that he is close to being where he was physically before he had cancer. When asked about what cancer has taught him about himself, Conner said, “You're stronger than you think. You're never out of the fight. If you put your mind to it you can do it.”
Conner was awarded the Disney Spirit Award last week to honor his inspiring comeback. A few days later, he declared for the NFL draft.
James Conner continues to be an inspiration for cancer patients because he showed them that cancer wasn’t going to stop him from getting back to what he loved. Conner has advice for other patients: “If you keep pushing, everything is going to be all right in the end. Just have a great support cast and just fight and stay strong.”
Photo credit: Justin Berl/Getty Images (Conner action); Courtesy of Dylan Goldman (Conner and Dylan)