"Even the sun sets in paradise"
As the ink dries on James Conner's new deal with the Arizona Cardinals, a new sense of hope arises.
It arises for the Cardinals, an organization on the brink of making the playoffs with an exciting team and a few pieces away from making serious noise on the national landscape.
It arises for the Steelers, an organization ready to find their next game-breaking ball-carrier in the 2021 NFL Draft as the team's Super Bowl window comes to a close with their Hall of Fame quarterback on the verge of retirement.
Hope also arises for Conner himself, just 25 years old and ready to make the most of a fresh start in the desert.
To grasp Conner's impact in Pittsburgh, we must first understand his journey.
Conner's story is something out of a Superhero comic book: A three-star prospect coming out of high school, Conner opted to stay home and play his college football at Pitt. In the season opener of his junior season, Conner tore his MCL, leaving his future at Pitt and beyond nothing short of cloudy.
The universe works in mysterious ways, and tearing his MCL was only the beginning of Conner's journey. Through his rehab process, Conner discovered a tumor on his chest. In December of that year, Conner began chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The Washington Post did a fabulous article on Conner's trials and tribulations during that rough stretch of time. For Conner, a stretch where ordinary problems were no match for the road ahead. Conner was told by doctors that his condition remained undetected; he was given "about a week left" to live.
"If I never had this knee injury I would've been on the field and I probably would've been feeling out of shape and that I've got to work even harder. I'd be taking shots to the chest. I could've died on the field" said Conner in an interview with USA Today.
"I'm very thankful for my knee injury"
After eventually clearing one of the largest hurdles life can present and emerging cancer-free later that offseason, Conner completed his senior season of college football prior to entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
Conner's draft profile, via NFL.com's Lance Zierlein:
"Physical, battering-ram style runner who makes the hitting a two-way affair. Conner's lack of speed and reactive quickness could limit his role as a pro, but his heart, work ethic and ability to keep the chains moving could make him a red-zone specialist with the ability to handle some third down duties as well.
Projection: Fourth-Fifth Round"
With the Steelers needing to fill a hole DeAngelo Williams left in a complimentary back to Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh made Conner the eighth running back selected by drafting him in the third round. For such a player rooted in faith, it felt as if fate itself had kept Conner in his own stomping grounds by donning the black and gold and playing in the very same stadium he once did in college.
Little did Steelers fans know how big Conner's presence would become, even after Conner sold more jerseys than any rookie in his draft class.
In Conner's second season in the league, superstar running back Le'Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season due to a contract dispute. Bell's disappearance was met with great mystery by even his own teammates, as Conner appeared to be thrown in the fire as the starting running back in week one of the regular season.
What transpired next was nothing short of magical: Despite missing three games, Conner finished the season with 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, while also nearly 500 receiving yards on 55 receptions with 1 receiving touchdown as well. Conner earned a Pro Bowl nod following his performance, and the Steelers appeared to have their guy in what was likely to be a future without Bell.
Conner established himself as an easy guy to root for across the league, yet Steelers fans were able to pin the title of "Hometown Hero" to their freshly purchased Conner jerseys. Yet, with an exceedingly bright future ahead, nobody could know the trials and tribulations ahead for Conner and the rest of the team.
Through his next two seasons, Conner would struggle with staying healthy, missing a total of nine games from 2019-2020 and likely playing more games with injuries hampering the Pitt product. The once ray of sunshine broadcasted on Conner by media and fans alike quickly turned dark, as questions surrounding Conner's health and overall performance consistently arose following an outstanding 2018 season.
In his last year in Pittsburgh, the Steelers' rushing offense ranked dead-last in the NFL. Conner quickly shouldered the blame in a pivotal contract year despite extremely poor play-calling and offensive line play. Conner ultimately didn't deliver to terrible towel waver's expectations, and upon news of the Steelers allowing Conner to hit the open market in search of a new home, a plethora of mock drafts quickly saw the Steelers drafting their next-in-line running back.
Did Conner live up to his potential? It's hard to argue his ceiling was hit in Pittsburgh for various reasons that are and aren't his fault. As a running back, Conner was only able to provide so much in the team's hunt for a Lombardi Trophy, especially with how pass-oriented the offense became in the later parts of his tenure in Pittsburgh. Conner would flash his capabilities for a play or two each game, reminding everybody watching that he was still capable of toting the rock at a high level.
Yet the NFL is a business where things quickly change in a "what can you do for me now" operation. The Steelers felt Conner no longer fit into their plans moving forward, and that's a reality many face each season.
Now, Conner finds himself playing football somewhere other than Heinz Field for the first time in eight years. Conner expressed his gratitude for the entire city's support during his time in Pittsburgh, with teammates showing love for the hometown kid as well.
Time eventually heals all. Conner and the Steelers will play their separate but respective games, as both look to a future where each are successful in their own rights. Should the two paths cross again on the field, the amount of love and respect the Steelers would show Conner (and vice-versa) would be nothing short of high.
Truthfully, Conner's time in Pittsburgh flamed out quicker than anybody had hoped for. However, that's okay. Timing is everything, and the feeling should be mutual between the Steelers and James that a fresh start was needed.
Conner quickly established himself as a fan-favorite thanks to not only his personal success, but his success on the field as well. During his tenure, Conner represented the Steelers extremely well in every way, providing a source of inspiration to an entire group of people fighting their own battles with cancer while simultaneously doing the same for Steelers fans everywhere with his performance on the field.
Many will tell you football isn't just a game. I'll also add that James Conner isn't just a running back, and his time in Pittsburgh should only be remembered in a positive light.