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, 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.
“It was sickening. I will never forget that day,” said Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi of when he heard the news. “I was in the Steelers café. We have our facility together. I found out on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. I will never forget it. The next day we played Miami. Nobody else on the team knew, just me, the doctors and trainers. I wanted to get through the weekend. Standing on the sideline the next day you are sick to your stomach. He was already out for the season with the knee, but this on top of it.
“It felt like something was going on during the season. He was losing weight. You looked at his face. I kept pressing the doctors, there is something wrong. That is not him. I would look at him and say what is wrong, finally they found out what was wrong.”
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 choose 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.
“He was stronger than most people. He was going to beat it one way or another,” said Narduzzi. “To watch what he went through, what he fought through, it made our team tougher. They realized what toughness is. James is a tough guy. It made us all stronger.
“It was incredible to see him come out of that tunnel again. Some people don’t come out of that tunnel again. Let’s face it, they don’t. But even more incredible than watching him come out of that tunnel was the work he put in to get to that tunnel. To watch him go out there and play again, and to now watch him play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, having the success he is having, it’s a dream come true.”
James Conner receives the Ed Block Courage Award, voted on by his teammates
The dream really did come true 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. Conner took over the starting running back job in 2018 and ran wild with it. He rushed for 973 yards on 215 carries with 12 touchdowns. He also had 26 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Conner was selected to the Pro Bowl for his efforts, as well as being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for Week 8 and AFC Offensive Player of the Month for the month of October 2018. He repeated the Offensive Player of the Week honor this year when he won the award after rushing for 145 yards against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.
He has been honored many times for his courage and on Tuesday received another honor, the Ed Block Courage Award, presented at the Annual Art Rooney Courage House Luncheon at Heinz Field, which benefits Holy Family Institute.
“It’s an honor first and foremost to be recognized, but especially by my teammates, the ones I am with every day,” said Conner. “They are the ones I go to practice with, compete on the field. For my teammates to vote for me shows the mutual respect we have for one another and it’s such an honor.
“The people I am able to touch and inspire, it makes you want to be a survivor first. That is exactly what it is. It can be a lot at times, but I am thankful for it. I am thankful for the position. So much comes with it. So much inspiration and the hope we give people. It turns out to be more than the game at a certain point. I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back.”
Coach Mike Tomlin presented the award, something that was special to him after seeing him go through his treatment while he was at Pitt to where he is today.
“That is James. It could be the James Conner Courage Award,” said Tomlin. “What we have an opportunity to witness, not only here but what he was able to do in college and overcome, I think everybody in this region has a keen understanding of his courage.
“I remember one day he was working on conditioning in the indoor. He had a mask one. I stopped and had a conversation with him. I could tell at that moment that guy is going to overcome not only what he is facing, but that guy is going to live out his dreams. He is going to become a professional football player. I think he convinced me in that small conversation we had that day. He and I often talk about that conversation because we both remember it.”
Conner remembers that initial conversation and said it definitely gave him a huge boost.
“He said that is how he knew I loved football,” said Conner. “We talked about the work it took. He said don’t lose that edge that you have. That meant a lot. He had a job title I wanted to be a part of. It was amazing the support I had from everybody, but it meant a lot coming from Coach Tomlin, me being in the city and being so close by.”
While those types of conversations helped, it was something Conner had deep down that got him through the tough times. Many struggle to find courage, but for Conner it was easy because it’s something that he always possessed.
“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 continues to be an inspiration for anyone battling leukemia. He spends time with Make-A-Wish kids who visit the Steelers’ practice facility, visits Children’s Hospital, and always has uplifting words of encouragement to anyone who needs that little boost.
“It’s always awesome,” said Conner. “The guys are always talking about who the Make-A-Wish kid’s favorite player is going to be. Most of the time when it’s a cancer patient or survivor it’s usually me. It never gets old. Every Friday I look forward to it. Giving them my gloves, signing autographs, taking a picture with them. So little, but it means so much to them. That never gets old.”