Cancer free and confident, James Conner eager to get to NFL
PITTSBURGH (AP) James Conner long envisioned the day he would walk into the indoor practice facility the Pittsburgh Panthers share with the Pittsburgh Steelers and be welcomed by a sea of NFL scouts and coaches.
Yet the record-setting running back didn't envision it quite like this, walking from station to station with a crew from NFL Films in tow to chronicle another important step in the 21-year-old's remarkable comeback from a battle with cancer.
Conner spent a large portion of last spring sitting in a chair, chemotherapy dripping through an IV into his arm. The drugs saved his life but sapped his strength. Just not his resolve.
There Conner was on Wednesday, the Hodgkin's lymphoma that wracked his body long since gone. Over the course of a few hours he shook every hand that was offered, churned through a shuttle run and caught passes from good friend Nathan Peterman during his last extended audition before next month's NFL draft.
''Just checking a box,'' Conner said. ''Another milestone. First was beating cancer. The next was return to the field. The next was the combine. Now pro day.''
While the 2014 ACC Player of the Year declined to run the 40-yard dash - he ran 4.66 during the combine in February - he ran pass route after pass route hoping to show he can do more than just take a handoff and go.
''Just want to show I'm an every-down back,'' Conner said. ''I can run and catch. I didn't drop one today, so I'm proud of that.''
Conner gave himself an ''A-plus'' for his performance, his confidence buoyed after spending several weeks working out in California with other NFL prospects, including his friend, North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He weighed in at 237 pounds (up a bit from 233 at the combine), but feels comfortable anywhere in the 230-240 range.
Asked if he had any second thoughts about taking another shot at the 40, Conner shook his head.
''Nope,'' he said. ''At the end of the day, the film is what matters most. I think I put some good things on tape.''
There's plenty for NFL personnel departments to look at, from the 3,733 yards in 39 career games to the ACC-record 56 touchdowns . Conner received the cancer diagnosis in November 2015 and spent more than six months in treatment, getting cleared to return last June. The resolve he showed during his fight with the disease struck a chord that crossed over from the sports world. He made an appearance on Ellen Degeneres' talk show and (hash)ConnerStrong became a movement as he made the transition from patient to survivor.
It's a role Conner has embraced. When asked about the film crew he joked he's eager to sit down and watch himself on TV. But he's eager to prove he's more than just a feel-good story. Conner built momentum as his redshirt junior season went on, going over 100 yards in four of Pitt's last five regular-season games, including 132 yards and a score in an upset over eventual national champion Clemson last November.
It was vintage Conner, and the evidence he needed to prove he was ready for the next step. He insists he's not paying attention to where he may go - he's been projected as a mid-to-late-round pick by some services - and instead is simply trying to enjoy the process.
That includes a draft party in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania in five weeks. It may be the only time he'll allow the butterflies. He's certainly earned them.
''As of now I'm one day at a time,'' he said. ''The nerves on draft day will be real.''
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