Pittsburgh bills itself as the “City of Champions,” boasting numerous titles in various professional and college sports, but it’s really the city of comebacks.
The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates have all enjoyed extended stretches of dominance, but they’ve been bad—in record-setting ways, in the case of the Steelers and Pirates—far more often than they’ve been good.
So perhaps it’s fitting that 2016’s most outside-the-box Heisman candidate is a Pitt Panther from the Steel City who is attempting a comeback from cancer.
James Conner, a hulking 6’2”, 240-pound running back from McDowell High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, first gained mainstream notice in 2013 when he rushed for a Pitt postseason record 229 yards in a thrilling come-from-behind Little Caesars Bowl win against a very good Bowling Green team.
A year later, Conner rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and won ACC Player of the Year and First-Team All-America honors. He still wasn’t a household name, but as a sophomore, he was looking more and more like a future second or third round NFL draft pick, perhaps even a late first rounder. His future was bright.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is something of a Pittsburgh tradition: Mario Lemieux, the great Pittsburgh Penguins star, was diagnosed with the disease in 1992, at the height of his career.
Then, on the eve of the 2015 season, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system that compromises the body’s ability to fight infection.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is something of a Pittsburgh tradition: Mario Lemieux, the great Pittsburgh Penguins hockey star, was diagnosed with the disease in 1992, at the height of his career.
Lemieux came back, though he wasn’t ever quite the same, and he spent a few more years headlining the Penguins before retiring, after which he bought the team and devoted himself to raising money for Pittsburgh-area cancer charities.
One of the institutions that now bears Lemieux’s name, the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at the Hillman Cancer Center, was where Conner received his chemotherapy treatments.
That procedure is often mentioned without any clarification or explanation, which can have the effect of rendering it innocuous. But make no mistake, chemotherapy is grueling and miserable, an arduous process that entails the introduction of intracellular poisons to inhibit cell division. You are quite literally killing yourself to live.
“Fear is a choice,” Conner said prior to beginning the first of his 12 chemotherapy treatments. “I chose not to fear cancer. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to beat this thing.”
Conner, who was in phenomenal shape and didn’t have many of the same risk factors as older patients, seemed justified in his confidence.
But this story of cancer and comebacks in the City of Champions goes far beyond Conner, at least for me.
Prior to his death in 2014 from complications related to a cardiac tumor, my father watched the Pitt-Bowling Green game and described Conner as “looking like another Ernie Davis.” My father had played college football against Davis. (Dad played for West Virginia, while Davis starred for Syracuse.) Davis died from leukemia before ever playing a down in the NFL, and my father followed him five decades later.
My mother and I both earned our graduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and we retained more than a passing interest in that school’s athletic teams. Led by future NFL greats Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino, Pitt had dominated the college ranks during the late 1970s and early 1980s but since then had been, like the city itself, mired in an endless state of rebuilding, of coming back from one misstep after another.
My mother and I also had more than a passing interest in cancer. Her mother, who came to the US from Kysucké Nové Mesto in present-day Slovakia, died in 1973 of what was then called Hodgkin’s disease—the same year my mother completed her graduate program at Pitt. Only weeks before her death, she had said she couldn’t wait to get better so she could return to her job supervising a school cafeteria.
James Conner represents the future of a team coming off an 8-5 season as well as the hopes and dreams of millions of people affected by cancer, but there’s still an outside chance he may not take the field this year.
In the following years, my mother lost aunts, uncles and cousins to various cancers. Throughout the 1990s, she paid for decades of careless sunburns with a lengthy, albeit manageable, battle against skin cancer.
“In the end, if you live long enough, you will most likely die of cancer or heart disease,” Dallas physician Richard McConnell told me recently. “These diseases impact all of us. But we are particularly struck by people who die ‘before their time’—a term that has broadened as human life expectancies have increased.”
Conner, then, is far more than a star athlete recovering from an injury. He’s also a star-crossed twentysomething who must make a comeback from premature disability and death. Every single practice he attends sets him apart from his teammates.
“If you think you’re having a bad day, you look over and see James Conner running in that [surgical] mask after a chemotherapy treatment,” Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos remarked during a video introduction to Conner’s appearance on The Ellen Show.
“He makes your problems look so small,” added Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“Not many have a bigger challenge than what he’s got,” Conner’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada told CBS Sports.
Conner has embraced his status as a role model. Like New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, he will always be coming back from cancer, always fighting for his life (which, not at all coincidentally, is the title of Herzlich’s autobiography). They were both great college players, and Herzlich has become a solid pro.
Is a career in the NFL the fate that awaits Conner? At the moment, he is somehow both a Heisman candidate and a completely unknown quantity. He represents the future of a team coming off an 8-5 season as well as the hopes and dreams of millions of people affected by cancer, but there’s still an outside chance he may not take the field this year.
Ernie Davis, who at 6’2” and 220 pounds approximated both Conner’s stature and his running style, never did come back. He died at age 23 and became one of sports history’s greatest what-ifs. What if the Cleveland Browns, who had drafted Davis, could have paired him with the equally spectacular Jim Brown?
“I never played against anybody else like Davis—not Mike Ditka when he was at Pitt, not Sam Huff or Bruce Bosley in West Virginia alumni games,” my father once told me. “When I saw Davis move out there, I knew the game was changing, that it would be played at a different speed for all the years to come.”
“Everybody dies too soon,” my mother said when I asked her about Conner’s struggle. “Like the John Donne poem, where he says every person’s death reduces him because he’s a part of mankind. I wanted my mom to come back, and she didn’t.
“At a certain point, at a certain age, all these people you know and love have died, sometimes too young and sometimes not,” she continued. “You start thinking to yourself, wow, all of the clichés about death are true… and all of them are meaningless. Like the one about how you can always come back, except for when you can’t.”
Ernie Davis didn’t come back, not from cancer anyway, yet he came back every time someone like my father watched football and saw Davis out there—the way he saw him when he watched Conner.
And James Conner, even if his career in sports does come to an untimely end, even if he never carries the ball again, has already come back. He stayed with us; he didn’t give up.
“I don’t know how to quit,” Conner told Ellen DeGeneres. “I’ll keep fighting.”
“What a game Conner had,” my father wrote to me in an e-mail after the 2013 Little Caesars Bowl. “Speaking as someone who played and who wishes he could have played forever, I can say that no matter what happens, you can’t take any of those yards away from him. The game is in the books and it’s all his for as long as there are records. He already did it, and it’s done.”
Let’s hope his cancer is too.