In an open letter to general managers around the league via an article in The Players’ Tribune, former Pitt running back James Conner sounded mature. He sounded confident. He sounded hungry. He sounded committed. And, dare I say it, he sure sounded like a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Not that it would exactly be a shock if the Steelers, who are in the market for a running back in order to work behind All-Pro Le’Veon Bell following their decision not to re-sign DeAngelo Williams after a mounting number of injuries and age catching up with him, were to draft the young man with whom they would have had so much familiarity already due to their obviously close proximity.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin has regularly built a rapport with Pitt players, who play their games in the same stadium, though it is an interesting fact that he has literally never drafted one. In fact, the last Pitt player that the Steelers have drafted was Hank Poteat in 2000. But they wouldn’t have to go far to find a prestigious alumnus, as they have one on on the staff in former Steeler Jerry Olsvavsky.
But this isn’t about Pitt, of course. And Conner made sure to point out that this isn’t about cancer, either. That’s how he opened his article, because it is the opening for so many conversations. “I’ve come to realize that me being a cancer survivor is something I’ll never get away from”, he wrote.
“But I’m writing you today to let you know that I am more than the guy who beat cancer. I’m writing to tell you some things that you don’t know about me”, he directed to those who may know nothing about him other than his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
He talked about his background, and how he was a defensive end in high school. He talked about how he begged his mother for $50 that she didn’t have to allow him to attend a prospects camp at Pitt that he believed to be his foot in the door—which is proved to be, as he did so well he was offered a full-ride scholarship.
Once there, he bowled over people early in his college career. But then there was the knee injury. And then the dreaded ‘c’ word struck. And then he came back. But he came back, in his words, at “sixty percent. If that”. “That’s just real talk”, he said.
He talked about how his cancer treatments affected his ability to work out, and that he had just two months before the season to prepare. He was winded just coming out of the tunnel early on, but he built up strength as the season progressed.
He then proceeded to make the case for himself, saying that he was 100 percent healthy, including from his knee injury a couple years back. He has dropped his body fat, which was inflated due to medications taken during chemotherapy, from 18 percent when he started training for the combine all the way down to seven.
“I’m quicker than I’ve ever been”, he pointed out. But “no one’s ever gonna be psyched about having to tackle me. Bet that”. He described himself as a “tough, hard-nosed back who wears down defenses” and pointed out his abilities as a receiver and blocker to boot.
James Conner is not a man simply looking to overcome cancer to make it to the NFL. “I’m trying to make the Hall of Fame one day”, he said. He is dedicated to excelling at the next level with passion and intensity.
He is a powerful, physical runner with a complete skill set who is only now returning to peak physical ability. He is a leader and a high-character person off the field. He sounds like someone who would look good in black and gold.