Community rises to support beloved Pitt running back James Conner after Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis
James Conner does not sound like someone recently diagnosed with cancer.
Last Friday Conner held a press conference to announce that he has Hodgkin lymphoma. He learned of the news on Thanksgiving morning.
Yet, Conner conveyed admirable optimism despite the grim news. He didn't make mention of the obvious emotional anguish that comes with such news, or the brutal chemotherapy process to come. Instead, he talks of his plans to return to the football field next season.
"When it's all said and done, I think we'll have a great story to tell," Conner said. "I'm excited to tell that story."
Conner, who won ACC Player of the Year in 2014 for his stellar play at running back for Pitt, plans to attack the recovery process with the same vigor he does on the football field. Given his bruising running style, it's only right that his head coach, Pat Narduzzi, used a fighting analogy to describe Conner's rehabilitation.
"Cancer started this fight," Narduzzi said. "James is going to finish it with the help of his teammates and coaches."
But Conner has gained notoriety for much more than his play on the field. Among fans, his teammates and coaches, Conner's gained praise for his kindness and caring disposition.
In September, he was named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which recognizes football student-athletes who have made a positive impact on others and their communities. The number of places he's volunteered at rivals his number of awards on the football field. Those destinations include Children's Hospital, the Mel Blount Youth Home, World Vision, and National Kidney Foundation, among other places.
His extensive history of helping others has been well documented. Even on the day of his biopsy, when a family friend visited Conner, he was selfless enough to ask first about his friend's health condition.
After countless visits to hospital to uplift the spirits of sick children, he will be referencing those experiences for encouragement.
"I know there's a lot of young kids who have cancer around this area and all over who look up to me," he said. "I'm just ready to face this challenge, ready to say I'm a survivor."
Since the news broke, Conner has received overwhelming support. Pitt's basketball student section, the Oakland Zoo, crafted a sign to show support. Scott Van Pelt echoed the message on his midnight edition of SportsCenter.
Loads of people in the sports world tweeted similar sentiments. Mario Lemeiux, who was diagnosed with the same type of cancer in 1993, offered support along with Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Dan Marino and Steelers lineman Cam Heyward. Even James Franklin, head coach of rival Penn State, chimed in.
Eric Berry, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma last year and was cleared to practice roughly seven months later. Conner tweeted that Berry reached out to him.
The support prompted the hashtag #ConnerStrong, which has been tweeted by loads of teammates and others nationwide. The news, Narduzzi said, shocked Conner's teammates.
"I don't know if I've seen a bunch of kids more down in my life," Narduzzi said.
Yet, it seems Conner's peers were more down than Conner himself was about the news, who has showed great poise in the situation
"When I heard I got cancer, I was a little scared," Conner said. "But fear is a choice. I chose not to fear cancer. We're going to fight, and we're going to beat this thing."
Even mentioning that it's going to be fight seemed out of character, given his optimism. For Conner, the end result is inevitable.
"I will win," he said.
Jeremy Tepper is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.