It wasn’t until the third week of the 2018 preseason that James Conner and the Pittsburgh Steelers came out of the tunnel and played in front of their hometown fans at Heinz Field.
Conner, the Steelers’ second-year running back and the current starter while All-Pro Le’Veon Bell skips training camp, is plenty familiar with the venue.
After all, it’s the site of some of his most emotional moments as a player, when he returned to the University of Pittsburgh in 2016 after overcoming a cancer diagnosis to return triumphantly to the football field.
Most are familiar with Conner’s story. After he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in November of 2015, Conner made a stunning recovery, going through chemotherapy in the morning before spring practice, which he took part in with a port still inserted in his chest and while wearing a surgical mask to protect his weakened immune system.
Conner not only returned to the field, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards to finish second in Pitt history in rushing yards and touchdowns, behind only Tony Dorsett, He helped the Panthers beat arch-rival Penn State in the resumption of the historic rivalry and ended up being drafted by the Steelers, the team he’d grown up rooting for as a boy in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Despite the fact that his cancer has been in remission for two years, that sense of motivation hasn’t left Conner. For him, the feel-good story of the local player who defeated cancer, rose to collegiate prominence and was selected by his boyhood team to play in the NFL is a play that has yet to approach its final act.
Just getting to the NFL is only part of the goal and Conner has spent this season’s training camp as the team’s top back in Bell’s absence. And while he acknowledges it’s a temporary assignment, he’s hoping he’s done enough to show that he’s ready for a greater role.
“Obviously, Le’Veon is going to start, but if anything were to happen or I’m needed to jump into a role, I’ll be ready for it,” Conner said, leading up to the Titans game.
While Conner’s status as a feel-good story is largely acknowledged, many have cast doubt over his potential as a future NFL starter. His lack of high-end foot speed and a pair of surgically repaired knee ligaments are often cited as the reasons Conner might not ever advance beyond being Bell’s top backup.
After beating cancer, Conner finally got to the NFL’s doorstep, and even before being selected by the Steelers, he was already aware that what he’d been through had shaped him in a way that was atypical, even for a professional-bound athlete.
“I’ve been overcoming odds my whole life,” Conner said at the combine before the 2016 NFL Draft. “My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, are second to none. I’ve just been through so much and I feel, I’m more determined. … I’m willing to make sacrifices and do what it takes. I’ve showed that.”
After securing the role of Bell’s backup as a rookie in training camp, Conner performed well in sparse duty, averaging 4.5 yards per carry — half a yard better than Bell.
But Conner left the Steelers’ Week 15 with a knee injury that would require surgery, this time on his left knee. It was yet another pitfall in Conner’s journey, one that ended up affecting the Steelers entire offseason.
While the team negotiated with Bell on a new contract — and ultimately failing to reach a deal — they had to do so without knowing exactly what they had in line behind him.
“Unfortunately, once [Conner] got himself healthy and caught up physically, he did some good things and then he had the knee injury,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said at the beginning of training camp. “So, we don’t know. James has to prove that he can be available and be productive for 16 games.”
So again, Conner has tapped into his otherworldly reserve of determination in order to prove that not only does he belong in the NFL, that he can be an every-down back, as well.
“I’m still in the process of growing,” he said “I don’t know if I’ve gotten better yet. I still haven’t done anything on the field, so I guess we’ll see if I got better as the season comes around.”
Where the future takes Conner is far from set in stone. The Steelers will most likely not place a franchise tag on Bell for the 2019 season, meaning that as of right now, there could be a future opportunity for Conner. The big picture is certainly still bright.
“He’s one of those second-year guys that you have a natural expectation to see an improvement,” Tomlin said. “We’ve been around the track for a lap. He understand what’s going on in terms of the environment of professional football. He should utilize that experience and knowledge to produce a better, more consistent performance.”
As for Conner, he has “tunnel vision” when it comes to how his future will unfold. His history of setbacks has taught him not to take anything for granted. But his history of overcoming them has taught him the way to proceed regardless.
“I just felt like I showed that I was conditioned and able to play,” Conner said of his performance in this year’s training camp. “I’m still in the process of showing it, each and every day.”