Conner's courage was never in doubt

‘Conner Strong’

Those two words are emblazoned on James Conner’s arms, one on the right, one on the left.

For those that don’t know his story, they simply might think it’s a description of how he attacks every play, every carry he makes as the Steelers’ starting running back.

But those two words mean so much more.

Because ‘Conner Strong’ is a mindset, one that got him through the toughest time in his life.

And it is that strength that earned Conner the Steelers 2019 Ed Block Courage Award, an award he will receive at the Annual Art Rooney Courage House Luncheon on Nov. 5 at Heinz Field, which benefits Holy Family Institute. The award is voted on by his teammates and given to a player who has shown courage either coming back from an injury or a life-altering situation.

“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, essentially go to war with. For my teammates to vote for me shows the mutual respect we have for one another and it’s such an honor to win this.”

In Conner’s situation, it was definitely a life-altering situation that had his teammates voting for him.

Conner was a running back at the University of Pittsburgh, battling an MCL injury that had him sidelined. While going through rehab, he realized something wasn’t right, experiencing swelling in his face when he was lifting weights.

Conner brought it to the attention of the team’s trainers and doctors, and before he knew it he learned news that would require him to be stronger than ever.

Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

It was a diagnosis that not only shocked him, but also sent shockwaves through the entire City of Pittsburgh and all of college football.

“When I heard those words--`You have cancer'--I admit I was scared,” said Conner on Dec. 4, 2015, not long after being diagnosed on Thanksgiving Day. “But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice. I choose to not fear cancer. I choose to fight it and I will win.

“One year ago today I was asking myself, `Why me?' Why was I the lucky one to be getting the ACC Player of the Year award when I had so many teammates who deserved it as much as me? Now one year later, instead of asking, `Why me?' I am saying, `Why not me?' I can beat cancer.

“I know there are so many people in the world who were told by their doctors this week that they also have cancer. I want them to know that together we can--and will--beat cancer.

“I will play football again. I will be at Heinz Field again. I have the best coaches and teammates in the country. I thank God I chose Pitt because now I also have the best doctors in the country and together, we will win. I know this city has my back.”

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Conner kept his promise. It took work, it took commitment, it took dedication.

But on May 23, 2016, he shared this message on Twitter.

“God is AMAZING. Just got the call that my body is clean of cancer!!! Been a long road but God had my back. Thanks everyone who said prayers!”

Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi, who supported Conner through it all, released a statement the day Conner got the good news.

“Over the past six months, James Conner fought cancer the same way he plays football: relentlessly and without surrender. He has inspired and touched so many people in how he has handled this challenge. James is an incredibly special person, and I’m not even thinking about his football ability when I say that. Everyone at Pitt feels blessed to know him and we are tremendously thankful for the wonderful news he received today.”

He took the next step when he returned to the field for Pitt’s 2016 opener, scoring two touchdowns against Villanova.

And the storybook ending, which was actually a new beginning, came when Conner was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

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, despite missing three games injured. 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.

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.”

It's just another way he is ‘Conner Strong.’

About the award: Since 1984, the Ed Block Courage Award annually honors one player from every NFL team who exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage. Recipients are selected by a vote of their teammates to recognize both on- and off-the-field extra efforts along with their ability to overcome great adversity, whether it be personal or professional. The award is named in honor of Ed Block, the long-time head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Colts.

For more information on the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation, visit www.edblock.org.

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