Cancer free, Pitt star James Conner ready to play football
PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Conner doesn’t care where he plays, how he plays or how much he plays, he just wants to play football.
That was the driving force behind the Pitt redshirt junior running back’s six-month recovery from Hodgkin lymphoma, and toward that end, he joined his teammates Monday in the Panthers’ first day of training camp.
Conner was diagnosed in November but continued training and working out during his chemotherapy, even participating in spring practices with a surgical mask to protect his weakened immune system. In May, was declared cancer free by his medical team.
Throughout, the goal was to get back on the football field.
“Being out there with my teammates who competed all summer with me and who stuck by my side through my whole journey, it’s just awesome to be back,” Conner said after completing his first practice.
Even before his diagnosis, Conner’s 2015 had taken a frustrating turn. He tore his medial collateral ligament in Pitt’s season opener against Youngstown State and wasn’t able to return.
That means Conner has a decent amount of rust to shake off to return to the form that made him the ACC Player of the Year in 2014, when he rushed for 1,765 yards and scored 26 touchdowns. Physically, he has no limitations, but to get his timing back, it’s all about getting reps in camp.
“Just getting the feel,” he said. “You have to be in shape, just getting the feel and getting back into the rhythm of things. That’ll come with reps in practice. Every day, I work on every part of my game. It’s just taking reps, getting back into my rhythm. It won’t take long.”
“It’s the mental part of the game that you need,” agreed coach Pat Narduzzi. “It’s not just running the ball. Some people might think that playing running back is easy — you just carry the ball and find a whole. But there’s a lot more to it than that.”
In Conner’s absence, Qadree Ollison turned in a 1,121-yard season that earned him ACC Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. They’ll be joined by senior Rachid Ibrahim, sophomore Darren Hall and freshman Chawntez Moss in what could be a crowded backfield.
“They’ve proven that they can carry the load,” Conner said of his backfield mates. “I’m just helping out now, they’ve established and proved to themselves that they can compete in the ACC. Without me, they had something great going. I’m just trying to add to it.”
The plethora of running talent has led to new offensive coordinator Matt Canada tinkering with some multi-back sets and with Conner lining up at wide receiver from time to time this season. Conner did some pass-catching drills on the first day in addition to working out with the first team at running back.
“There are times where you’ll see two or three tailbacks out there — maybe four, who knows,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll find out here in the end. We have really good competition there from James to the young guys.”
Wherever he ends up and whatever his role will be, Conner feels forever changed by his experience.
“It’s bigger than the game of football,” he said. “It’s bigger than myself. The impact that I’ve had on others, I don’t take that for granted any more. I’m just thankful to God. You won’t hear me complain, my teammates won’t ever hear me complain again and they won’t be complaining, either. Anything is better than receiving chemotherapy. I’d rather be out here playing football.”
With one milestone checked off, Conner can turn his thoughts to the season opener Sept. 3 vs. Villanova, and his ultimate goal of leading the Panthers back out of the tunnel at Heinz Field.