Combine Culminates James Conner’s Epic Road To Recovery
The NFL Scouting Combine is know for its unusual, often times taboo, questions, during the week's infamous interview process.
James Conner, a running back out of Pittsburgh, has been surprised, not by the questions, as he said nothing has been too out of the blue yet, but rather by an extension of joyous feeling.
"I'm getting a lot of congrats, which I didn't really expect," Conner said while meeting with the media at the Indiana Convention Center on Thursday afternoon. "Right now, I'm focused on playing NFL football....Now, I have a ton of vision, trying to make the most of this opportunity."
Conner, 21, is one of the many names who have descended upon Indianapolis this week for the Combine. Pittsburgh is just over 359 miles away from Indy, but for Conner, the journey involved more than a few twists and turns. Conner, an underclassman, was diagnosed by Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2015, an infectious cancer that forced him through 12 round of therapy.
Asked what kept him going during that trying time, Conner's answer was simple.
"This right here...trying to fulfill my ultimate goal of being an athlete in the NFL," he said. "I'm one step closer here at the Scouting Combine. The goal is to be an NFL player. During treatments and everything, this was on my mind...moments like this. Getting closer to my dream."
Despite the setback, football never left Conner's mind.
"I still wanted to be around, studying a new playbook," said Conner, who revealed he received a "clean scan" last Thursday. "Just me being around my teammates helped me lift my spirits. Being around those guys made it a lost easier for me, a smoother process."
Pitt's expansive network of NFL alumni helped Conner through the arduous process. He said the former Panthers, current superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald among them, have respectfully kept their distance during the chaos of Combine week, but they were more than happy to contribute to his ongoing recovery.
"I'm blessed to have close relationships with (Pitt alum Dan) Marino, Fitzgerald," he said. "All of those guys constantly reached out during chemo, reached out after, telling me good luck before games. I feel blessed to have such relationships. They told me to do you, be yourself. That's really the best advice you can give anybody."
Conner said he also had good talks with a fellow cancer survivor, Dallas Cowboys TE Gavin Escobar, who beat testicular cancer.
Conner has stated that teams have not worried about his long term health, rather more interested in what he's going to bring to the football field. They can certainly take a look at the game film alone, as Conner, upon his triumphant return to the football field in 2016, was certainly impressive. Scoring 20 total touchdowns, 16 coming via the rush, Conner helped the Panthers to an 8-5 mark, leading up to an appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl. His most notable appearance came during the game against Clemson on November 12, an upset victory over the eventual national champions. Conner certainly played his part, tallying 132 yards and two scores, as Pitt pulled off the improbable 43-42 win.
"The ACC is a top of the line conference. There are no slouches," he said. "Every game, you got to bring it. That's what the NFL is, the best of the best. Playing in the ACC, I definitely think that's going to translate to my play in the NFL."
The year didn't exactly end the way Conner wanted to, as he was injured heading into the bowl game at Yankee Stadium, part of a tough Pittsburgh day overall, mired in
His contributions to the Panthers have earned the attention and respect of his football peers in the Pittsburgh area. Conner recently got to meet with Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, as the two have the same representation. Rep1 Sports, based in Irvine, California. The two met the agency's HQ, and had an impromptu ping pong game, which Conner commented on during his availability at the Combine.
"(Ben) knows I overcame a lot," he said. "He told me the same things, be you," he said before adding with a smile "And I beat him one-on-one at ping pong!"
Now with a week to further impress the unforgiving eyes of NFL coaches and scouts, Conner is not going to let the opportunity pass. He's looking forward to partaking in perhaps the Combine's most renowned event, the 40-yard dash, as well as get his name out through the interviews, accepting the congratulations while taking nothing for granted.
"I always ask the coaches here, what do you want at running back," Conner says. "They always a tough guy. My mental toughness, my physical toughness, I believe, are second to none. I've just been through so much, and I think I'm more determined than any back in the class. I'm willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes."
In a situation where most people would cringe and make excuses, Conner is just going and lace up his sneakers and run...on the field, his best medicine of all.
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