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Conner honored for his courage

Posted Oct 12, 2017

James Conner was honored by someone he looked up to as a kid, Jerome Bettis.

Courage.

It’s defined in textbook form as “Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” It’s referred to as, “The ability to do something that frightens one.” And it’s also known as, “Strength in the face of pain or grief.”

It’s defined in real life as James Conner.

Conner was a running back at the University of Pittsburgh two years ago, battling an MCL injury that had him sidelined. While going through rehab, he started to notice some abnormalities, most notably swelling in his face when he was lifting weights.

He knew something wasn’t right, but he didn’t know what. He never could have imagined how bad it was. On Thanksgiving Day in 2015 he would be diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Conner admitted to being scared when he got the news. Come on, who wouldn’t be? But he found courage to fight that feeling.

“Fear is a choice. I chose not to fear cancer,” said Conner when he made his diagnosis public.

There were days when the chemotherapy and medication knocked the heck out of him, but he didn’t let that slow him down. One day he would have an IV pumping medicine in him, and a few days later he would be back on the practice field with his Pitt teammates, working out and doing the unimaginable.

He fearlessly battled the disease, never giving up hope that he would return to the football field, and he did so in triumphant fashion in Pitt’s 2016 opener against Villanova, scoring two touchdowns.

The icing on the cake came when Conner was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, completing what was beyond a courageous battle to keep a dream alive.

He has been honored many times for his courage, and on Thursday night at Heinz Field received one more honor, from someone he admires.

Conner was presented with the Courage Award at the Jerome Bettis Bus Stops Here Foundation ‘Caring for Kids’ dinner.

“It really was an easy decision to select him with what he has overcome,” said Bettis. “What he has been able to do and accomplish in such a short period of time, the way he has been able to motivate people and inspire people. He does nothing but show courage.”

Conner said he was humbled to be honored by Bettis, someone he was a fan of growing up.

“It’s awesome to get this award from Jerome,” said Conner. “Watching Jerome Bettis growing up, I always looked up to him. Now playing for the same team, the same position.

“It’s a great honor to be honored by him. It’s prestigious.”

While many struggle to find courage, for Conner it was easy because it’s something that he always possessed, but his battle was the first time he had to truly demonstrate it.

“Something like that comes from within,” said Conner. “It’s something you are born with, and you are just blessed with. You draw strength from others around you, your teammates and stuff. I had a great supporting cast really all around the world through social media and stuff, but really right here in Pittsburgh where I played college ball. The support helps you get that courage.

“To still be in Pittsburgh, that is such a help. There are a lot of familiar faces and great relationships I have established over time. It’s awesome to stay in the city, where my doctor is, my friends and family. It’s a blessing.”

Conner’s doctor, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center's Dr. Stanley Marks, was also honored at the dinner with the Humanitarian Award. 

“This event is great for our foundation because the ultimate goal is to impact the kids in this community, and this does,” said Bettis. “Beyond that, to be able to do the things we do and honor people in the community that is an important part as well. So many people are doing good things in this community. This is a chance for us to shine a light on some of the great people in the community that are changing lives, saving lives and encouraging people to be better.”