PHILADELPHIA (CBS) —It was tough seeing him like that, bent over groping for air, with his hands on his knees staring at the ground looking for an answer. That wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Not to him. James Conner, a human tank with speed who had just recovered from a knee injury, began tiring easily after workouts. He couldn’t sleep. Simple things that he normally could do became taxing. The Pitt Panther running back went through prescriptions and various medications, and still, he received no answers in November 2015.
The question gnawed at him: What was happening?
A few weeks later, he received a call from a doctor with the results of a CT scan and an X-ray. The doctor told Conner that they discovered an odd mass near his chest, and that there was a reason why he was feeling so fatigued. He was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and as soon as Conner heard those words he froze.
“At first, I really didn’t believe it, I was in shock,” Conner recalled. “I called my mother and she took it well. It was harder for me to tell my teammates and coaches in person. I was crying. The team was crying. It was tough. That’s when I think the reality sunk in. Those were the toughest times. I had to be a man about it, though. I was more confused at first. But oh, yeah, you think people die from cancer. I was never scared.”
Every two weeks for six months, Conner endured chemotherapy. He endured his insides being fried. Of urinating red, of the nausea and constant vomiting after each treatment, of dreaming about being anywhere but where he was, tubes running all over him, the beeps of monitors, of losing the taste in your mouth and the needles.
“I kept telling myself that I was going to get through this,” Conner said. “This wasn’t going to beat me.”
Just three months after chemo, Conner was on the field again, scoring a touchdown in the Panthers’ 2016 season-opening victory over Villanova. A week later, he ran over Penn State for 117 yards and a touchdown in another Pitt victory. Two months later, he pounded eventual national champion Clemson for 132 yards and a 20-yard fourth-quarter touchdown in a 43-42 upset over the No. 2-ranked Tigers. He concluded the season by being named first-team all-ACC, and as the ACC’s all-time leader in career touchdowns (56) and all-time rushing touchdowns (52).
Conner also achieved one other important tribute for his personal triumph: The Maxwell Football Club’s prestigious Tom Brookshier Spirit Award in recognition of his courage, leadership and outstanding effort. Conner will be honored at the 80th Maxwell Club gala on Friday, March 10 at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. Deadline for tickets is Wednesday, March 8 at 5 p.m. and can be purchased at https://maxwellfootballclub.org/maxwell-football-club-national-awards-gala.
If the Eagles are looking for a solid mid-round pick to bolster their backfield, Conner could be it. His NFL Combine weigh-in was 233, around 15 pounds lighter than his playing weight at Pitt. He showed good explosion running the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. He bench pressed 225 pounds 20 times. His excellent receiving skills could suit the Eagles.
In his last college season, he rushed for 1,092 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. He also joined some rare company in Pitt annals, ranking second all-time in rushing yards (3,733), total touchdowns and rushing TDs, trailing only the legendary Tony Dorsett in each of those categories.
“I can laugh now, when I look back, because you can’t change anything but it made me better,” Conner said. “I kept eyeballing Sept. 3 against Villanova. Nothing was going to keep me off that field. I would watch highlights during chemo to keep going. There were a lot of rock bottoms, but I think the worst came with treatment six of the 12 treatments.
“I would say treatments six through 11 were probably the worst ones. I gained weight. I would try and eat everything in sight and blew up to around 260. I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. I could still look at myself in the bathroom mirror, but not for that long. I kept thinking your physical image could change, but cancer can’t change the person that you are inside. I wasn’t going to let this break me. It challenges you and it scares you.
“There were plenty of times I thought the last place I want to be is sitting in this padded green chair going through this. I also started to think that I wasn’t just doing this for me, either. I have my four brothers, I have my mom, my Pitt teammates, and the coaching staff, everyone that stood by me.”
Conner says that support inspired him to push through, and he was amazed to find his story touched the entire football community, from Kansas City Chiefs’ all-pro Eric Berry, to former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Merrill Hoge, two cancer survivors, to other prominent cancer survivors like NHL all-time great Mario Lemieux.
“I wanted to be treated normal, and I didn’t want any pity from anyone,” Conner said. “It took me a lot of time to feel like I was back to normal. I played last year I think around 75-, 80-percent. I feel real good and I will be ready for the NFL Combine. I was progressing during the season, but I don’t think I was able to play and show what I’m truly able to do.
“I have Mr. (Mike) Gallagher (a family friend) and his family for staying with me, and supporting me throughout this whole thing. My agent, Ryan Tollner, stuck by me when I know a lot of agents didn’t. The support has been overwhelming. It really makes you appreciate every little thing. I have a new motivation and incentive that I know I don’t have to look too hard to find. Part of me wants to let go of it and bury it. I’m close to what you would call ‘Cancer James,’ and in the process of burying it, but cancer will always be a part of me.”
What Conner will never let go of are the images of himself as he was undergoing chemo. They’re indelible. The pictures and memories will always serve him as a stern reminder that the worst is over, that nothing could compare to the battle he waged and won.
“I never doubted for a second that the worst would happen,” Conner said. “My message is that you can beat the odds and have faith and stay positive. Winning this Brookshier spirit award means everything. Just to be alive and accept it means everything. That I’m able to do it with my family, my friends and Pitt family there means even more. I know I’m playing for everyone who has cancer. They give me the strength to play football for all of the ones that can’t.”
Tickets for the Maxwell Club gala can be purchased here.