PATIENT TO PITT TO PRO: Pittsburgh’s RB James Conner keeping quiet on decision to go to NFL
PITTSBURGH — James Conner has big plans for this weekend, and it has nothing to do with saying goodbye.
Thanksgiving marks the 1-year anniversary of the cancer diagnosis that threatened the Pittsburgh running back’s career, one that kickstarted his remarkable comeback and turned Conner into an inspirational figure for others in the same fight.
Conner — fully healthy and showing extended flashes of the raw brilliance that made him the ACC Player of the Year in 2014 — will celebrate the milestone with a massive family meal sometime after the Panthers wrap up the regular season against Syracuse on Saturday at Heinz Field.
“It’s going to be a good holiday this year,” Conner said Tuesday.
Whether it’s his last as a college player, Conner isn’t saying. Any decision on whether to return for a redshirt senior season next fall won’t come until after Pitt’s bowl game. Conner stressed he wants to “make the smartest choice.” He also doesn’t want to be a distraction to the 19 teammates who will run through tunnel at home for the final time, most of whom arrived at Pitt alongside Conner in 2013.
“I’m just going to sit back and enjoy their special moment,” Conner said.
Conner anticipated being in this situation a year ago. Then he tore the MCL in his right knee in the 2015 season opener against Youngstown State. A hastily arranged press conference the first week of December — which most expected to be Conner announcing he was heading to the NFL — instead turned into the disclosure that he was battling Hodgkin Lymphoma.
Months of chemotherapy followed. Conner put his challenge out there for all to see, joining his teammates for workouts and doing outreach to other cancer patients looking for someone to lean on. Yes, it’s not something he ever imagined he’d be doing around his 21st birthday. It hardly seems to bother him.
“It’s all positive energy,” he said. “If you see a young kid in a sad situation, you feel for him and me personally because I can relate to it.”
And overcome it, too. After a sluggish start this fall in which he seemed intent on trying to turn every touch into something spectacular instead of just doing what he’s always done — namely, keeping his legs and arms churning with a ferocity few in the country can match — Conner has relaxed in recent weeks. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of Pitt’s last four games, and his two 1-yard scoring runs in last week’s 56-14 thrashing of Duke made him the all-time leading touchdown maker (53) in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
Heady territory for a kid who attended a football camp at Pitt as a defensive end prospect before getting recruited as a running back. His 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame seems tailor-made for the NFL. Yet his winding journey has also altered his perspective. He’s no longer in such a hurry to get to the next thing.
“You can’t look too far ahead,” Conner said. “I don’t even look a week ahead because, especially me, you don’t know what’s going to pop up.”
Asked how he would benefit from another year in college, Conner smiled.
“Probably some more records,” he said. “I don’t know if I came back, just add to the legacy. I hope they retire No. 24 one day. That’s a goal of mine.”
One that’s probably already secure either way. While offensive coordinator Matt Canada hopes to have Conner around next fall, he understands if Conner moves on. One look at the way Conner is playing, including a stiff-arm during a 20-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter two weeks ago against Clemson that helped Pitt rally for a 43-42 upset, he certainly looks pro-ready.
“Why should people want to tackle James?” Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “There’s not many people that want to tackle James Conner.”
It’s why even with a running back draft class that could include LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Conner likes his chances if he opts to move on to the next phase of his life sooner rather than later.
“I like to think I’m pretty talented, too,” he said. “I just focus on me and do what I can and hope I get the opportunity.”