When Pittsburgh running back James Conner was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the end of the 2015 season, he decided that he would not let the disease stand in the way of achieving his dreams. While the former 2014 ACC Player of the Year was still rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered in the season-opener, Conner began his chemotherapy treatment.
Shortly after his diagnosis went public, Conner received a special message from former Clemson pitcher Clate Schmidt. While Conner’s life had been flooded with support, Schmidt’s story proved to be just the inspiration the Pitt star needed to get back on the field.
Schmidt was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in May of 2015, and he persevered through chemotherapy and radiation treatments to rejoin his Clemson baseball teammates at the end of August for conditioning. He was named the starting pitcher for Clemson on opening day in February.
Clemson went on to win the ACC Championship and host the regional tournament, and Schmidt was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round, proving that its possible to accomplish anything with support and the right mindset.
Conner and Schmidt quickly became close friends, exchanging tips for dealing with treatment and words of encouragement. The two claim that they have a special bond shared between only those who have battled through the hardships of cancer. However, until Pitt traveled to take on Clemson on Nov. 12, Conner and Schmidt had not met in person.
That all changed as the teams began to warm up, and pure joy filled Death Valley as the two survivors embraced. Schmidt stayed to cheer on both his Alma Mater, and his best friend, while Conner went on to rush for 132 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and had three receptions for 57 yards and another touchdown in Pitt’s 43–42 victory over the previously undefeated Tigers.
Conner went on to finish his redshirt junior season with 1,060 rushing yards and scored 20 total touchdowns in his last season as a Panther before declaring early for the 2017 NFL draft. He ended his Pittsburgh career with 3,701 yards on 660 carries while breaking the ACC record for career touchdowns with 56. He earned first-team All-ACC honors for the 2016 season and was presented in December with the Brian Piccolo Award as the most courageous football player in the ACC, and the Disney Spirit Award as the most inspirational player.
At the ESPN College Football Awards Show, Conner dedicated his season to those fighting their own battle with cancer, and he continues to offer support and encouragement to anyone who needs it, just how Schmidt provided him with vital inspiration and a life-long friend.