During their frequent basement wrestling contests, the Conner boys broke a lot of things: lamps, numerous walls, coffee tables, couch legs, futons. Sometimes they made up stories about why stuff was broken, but their parents knew. At one point the action moved outdoors, to a new backyard trampoline with netting around it. The boys ripped the netting off on the first day. In about two weeks the trampoline collapsed to the ground.
They performed the routine tortures that brothers inflict on each other. James Conner was the littlest of all, three years younger than his next-oldest sibling. He was sat upon and head-locked and punched in the stomach just because he was there. Most of it was standard procedure. Yet sometimes his brothers got creative.
Like the time they put James in the clothes dryer.
Precisely how small James was, no one is sure. What is known is that he was small enough to fit in the dryer. And his brothers dared him on it. James always did what his brothers told him to do, so he climbed inside.
Then Glen, the oldest, turned it on.
“He started going around in circles,” says Michael Conner, the third-oldest of five. “It started heating up and he started screaming. He was only in there for 10, 15 seconds. But the dryer starts getting toasty pretty quick.”
Genetics forged James Conner into a 6-foot-2, 250-pound war hammer of a running back who just broke a Heisman Trophy winner’s record at Pittsburgh and who ranks in the top five nationally in rushing yards (544), rushing touchdowns (8) and yards per game (181.3). Genetics also indirectly forged the experiences -- some of them near-death, apparently -- that hardened the sophomore into someone who recognizes and charges at the straightest path ahead. After all, genetics created a family circle that resembled a mixed martial arts octagon.
Conner’s four brothers -- three biological, one a stepsibling who is considered blood -- challenged him physically. Some of their shortcomings pushed him to find his own way. “Growing up, I don’t think you realize how much you do get out of it, how much you’ll benefit from it,” Conner says. “But it definitely makes you a competitor. It makes you have a little dog in you. It makes you tough.”
Pittsburgh has hitched itself to that resolve. Conner’s breakout performance in last December’s Little Caesars Pizza Bowl -- 26 carries for 229 yards with a score, plus a few snaps at defensive end -- signaled his arrival. Then he just kept coming. Conner’s ability to quickly process nuances and become an every-down threat pleasantly startled his coaches in spring and summer practice. His 177-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 42-25 win at FIU last week broke Tony Dorsett’s 41-year-old school record for the most prolific three-game rushing stretch to open a season. Behind his bulldozing running style, Conner is already just 20 yards short of Dorsett’s four-game total as Saturday’s showdown with Iowa approaches.
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He’s far from a finished product. Every Friday before heading to the team hotel, Pitt coaches roll “Best of James” and “Worst of James” film clips, emphasizing ball security, pad level and consistent reads. His room to grow is scary. “He’s someone who snaps in really fast,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph says. “It was probably getting through about the middle of last year and how he approached the bowl, you could see all of sudden where he made this transformation. He had successes and failures, and he said, ‘You know what? I can do this. Nothing is going to stop me from doing this.’ It’s been unwavering since then.”
Conner’s frame gives him little reason to swerve. The same goes for his background.
Conner’s mother, Kelly Bibbs, gave birth to her first son when she was 17. The family then grew in many ways, before and after a divorce in 1999. All four Conner boys now stand between 6-2 and 6-4, and none weigh less than 220 pounds. The scales tip with Richard, the second-born, who has trimmed down to 275 or 280. (Rico, the brother from Bibbs’ second marriage and the fourth-oldest, is the only sibling under 6-feet.) It could be the DNA, it could be that there was little money for sugary snacks growing up or it could be that working parents established early and non-negotiable bedtimes. Whatever the reason, the Conner boys grew big, and they grew big fast.
Since his parents had jobs to worry about, Conner had to drop his backpack when he came home from school and take on all comers without anyone to save him. “I could scream as loud as I could,” Conner says with a laugh. “It wasn’t going to do nothing for me.” In addition to wrestling, James and Michael would repair to the basketball court behind the house for football training. They stood on opposite ends. Michael threw the ball toward James, as high as he could. James had to catch it and run past Michael without trespassing out of bounds. Meanwhile, Michael tried to tackle his little brother. On asphalt.
“Michael makes a joke, ‘I’ve been breeding him for this for years,’” Bibbs says. “I’m like, no, you were just beating the heck out of him because it was fun for you.”
Other trials took years to come to light. One was the infamous dryer experiment. Another involved Conner’s brothers laying on their backs and positioning James on their feet -- he was in grade school at the time -- before launching him into the air. At one point, James landed and remained motionless for a few moments. Bibbs finally heard about the incident when James was in college. “They were like, ‘Mom, we thought we killed James,’” she says. “‘We had to wait 15 years to tell you.’”
Says Michael: “[James] always told me, when he looks at somebody or somebody says something to him on the streets or the football field, he goes, ‘I know there’s no way in hell they can beat my big brother, so they can’t beat me. Growing up, I knew the [stuff] he was going through, nobody else was going through. There was nobody that could touch him. He went through hell and back.”
The journey to Pitt was arduous in its own way. When Conner was a junior at McDowell High in Erie, Pa., the star was four-star prospect Greg Garmon. Conner served as a blocking back in a triple option, and, fearing he would go unnoticed, asked to play defensive end as well. “I thought it would come easy,” Conner says. “One-one-one to the quarterback, and I didn’t think I’d lose a one-on-one.”
He finished with 12 sacks and earned state All-Class AAAA honors on the line. Months later, at Pitt’s summer camp, he stood out enough to earn an offer as a defensive end. Conner committed on that premise, but once he moved to tailback as a senior and rolled to 1,680 yards with 21 touchdowns, he asked Rudolph if he might get a shot to carry the ball in college, too. Fatefully, Pitt missed on a couple running back recruits. Rudolph watched film of Conner and then of the next-best options. Shoot, he recalls thinking, James is a better tailback than those guys.
“I don’t think we were wrong at running back, and I don’t think we were wrong if we were to say you’re going to play defensive end only,” Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst says. “He’s really kind of a throwback.”
Conner played both ways in the bowl game and still attends defensive meetings and takes practice snaps at defensive end, should he be needed there. He hasn’t so far. Evidence suggests his development is accelerating elsewhere, anyway.
As a freshman, Conner was mercurial, with 623 of his 799 rushing yards coming in four games. Moreover, he felt he physically softened as the fall wore on, posting just one 100-yard outing between September and the bowl. But Chryst’s offseason hire of a new strength coach, Ross Kolodziej, proved key. Conner credits Kolodziej and a program focused more heavily on weight training for reinforcing his frame.
The bodybuilding instilled confidence. When Conner took a screen pass for a 70-yard score during spring practice, when he displayed open-field elusiveness, he convinced coaches that they had more than a mauler. “I don’t care if he’s 250 or 190, that’s hard for anyone to do,” Rudolph says. “It wasn’t hard to notice.”
This was Conner’s intent.
“I just wanted to be the guy, really,” he says. “I kind of shied away from the individual goals -- I just know where we want to go as a team. I knew what people were expecting from me, so I wanted to fulfill that. Whether it was getting the ball 36 times or getting the ball 10 times, any time I was on the field, I just wanted to make a difference.”
To manage Conner’s workload -- he has 30-plus carries in consecutive games -- coaches have limited his duties. But Rudolph expects Conner to become more engaged in the passing game soon. That could expand an offense already utilizing Conner in every facet of the run game, as his vision relating to blocking fits and his smooth style are uncommon among 250-pound battering rams.
“I don’t feel like James limits us,” Chryst says. “He can run inside, he can run outside. He can run zone schemes, he can run gap schemes. That’s where I feel fortunate.”
Still, there is something natural to Conner plowing straight ahead: He absorbed lessons about toughness from his brothers, but he also came to understand the cost of veering slightly off course.
Glen, Richard and Michael all enrolled in college but didn’t last long. They’re now in their mid-20s, working one or two jobs while attempting to finish what they started. James, meanwhile, was conscientious enough to call his mother or brothers for no-questions-asked pick-ups when he encountered uncomfortable social scenes in high school. He has never particularly loved school, his mother says, but he realizes it is a means to an end. When his football traction at McDowell High and Pitt seemed a bit tenuous, he initiated change to find a foothold and become indispensable. “‘J’ is the one who has the personality for success,” says Michael, who now works as an Air Force maintenance crew chief. “He has made all the right decisions.”
Before the 2014 season opener against Delaware, Michael paid his little brother a surprise visit. When they returned to the dorms at night, James grabbed a pillow and a sheet and tossed them on the floor. He stretched out on the makeshift bed. From below, James called up to his older brother on the mattress and asked if he was all right. I’m good, Michael replied. You comfortable?
“You know I’m good, bro,” James answered back, resting easy, having been through a lot worse.