It has only been three months since James Conner was declared cancer free, but the Pittsburgh Panthers running back is already a full participant at fall practice and is on track to play in the Panthers’ season opener on Sept. 3, according to a report from ESPN.
Conner’s journey to this point is nothing short of remarkable. It is a testament to his perseverance that he is even remotely in the position to take the field against Villanova next month.
When Conner received his diagnosis of stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last Thanksgiving, it was a devastating blow in a long line of setbacks for the junior running back in 2015. As a sophomore, Conner had established himself as one of college football’s best players, rushing for 1765 yards on 298 carries and scoring 26 touchdowns along the way. Heading into his junior campaign, he was right in the middle of any preseason Heisman talk and had the resume to back it up.
Then, disaster struck.
Just eight carries into Pitt’s season opener versus Youngstown State, Conner felt a twinge in his knee and the team held him out for the rest of the game as a precaution. However, their worst fears were confirmed when an MRI the next morning revealed a MCL tear in Conner’s right knee. He was done for the year. But the worst was still to come.
As Conner went through rehab, he was often unusually out of breath and dizzy. When doctors investigated, they eventually discovered his injured knee was the least of his concerns.
In spite of his diagnosis, Conner remained upbeat and vowed that he would be back in time for the upcoming season. He put himself through hell to get there, but it seems like he will meet that goal after all.
Conner went through 12 rounds of chemotherapy treatment over six months, but remained an active part of the team — going through offseason conditioning and even spring practice. But back in the spring, he wore a mask when he did drills and was not able to participate in full-contact activities.
During all the treatments, Conner said he never had any doubt he would be back to play football.
“I hit walls,” he said. “There were times that I was down, but I never thought once that I was never going to play football again or wouldn’t live.”
Now, it seems like it is back to business as usual for the former ACC Player of the Year.
“It’s great to have James,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I had one of the players say, ‘Coach, don’t baby him, he’s a man.’ We know he’s a man, but we’ve still got to be smart. He had a good day. It’s great to get him out here. It’s real. He’s back 100 percent and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do better.”
After staring down cancer, those ACC defenses are suddenly a lot less intimidating. And if 2014 is what Conner is capable of before this, then the rest of the league better brace itself for what he will unleash in 2016.