A press conference called Friday afternoon for James Conner seemed like it could only portend one thing--a declaration by Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, of his intent to leave Pitt and pursue an NFL career.
Friday's actual announcement turned out to be far worse than the one many feared. James Conner has cancer.
But like the knee injury that ended his season halfway through Pitt's first game, Conner plans to attack his disease fearlessly and intends to play football for Pitt again.
"When I heard I got cancer I was a little scared," Conner said. "But fear is a choice and I choose to fight it. We’re going to fight it and we’re going to beat this thing. I told my teammates today. They’ve got my back, my family has got my back, the whole city of Pittsburgh."
Doctor Stanley Marks, the Deputy Director of Clinical Services for University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Cancer Center, said Conner has masses in his neck--on the lymph nodes--and in his chest. Dr. Marks added Conner will receive chemotherapy treatment once every two weeks for the next six months, starting Tuesday.
"We are hopeful and optimistic that he will be cured and back on the playing field," Marks said.
Dr. Marks noted the cure rate for this form of cancer is between 85 and 95 percent. Marks also worked with former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and Duquesne point guard Derrick Colter when they encountered this diagnosis.
Marks encouraged him to stay active as it helps patients tolerate chemotherapy treatment much better.
"We spoke yesterday and I encouraged him to stick to a high-protein diet," Marks said. "Protein is critical in this setting. You would think we would discourage working out but actually it’s better that he work out and we want him to work out."
Conner says his knee is now at 100 percent, and calls the diagnosis a blessing in disguise as it gives him another year with his Pitt teammates after he said he was at a "crossroads" when it came to staying in school or going to the draft.
"I really cannot wait until we lock up again at Heinz Field and I take the tunnel with them and enjoy the process," Conner said. "Workouts, going through practice with them, in the film room. I’m going to lean on them a lot. I’m thankful to have another year with them, it’s going to be a lot of fun."
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said the team was informed at 12:30 Friday, and that Conner learned of his diagnosis on Thanksgiving morning.
"We just talked to the team about how cancer started the fight and James is going to finish it with all his teammates and coaches involved," Narduzzi said. "Everybody in this big family we have here in this building is going to help him get through this."
Conner's junior season ended in Pitt's first game when he suffered a knee injury against Youngstown State. He was an All-American in 2014 after rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns.
"I just thank God I chose Pitt because now I have the best doctors in the country," Conner said.
Conner was also named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team this fall, in recognition of his work off the field with Children's Hospital, the Mel Blount Youth Home and World Vision. He was honored by the National Kidney Foundation with the 2015 Small Hands Big Heart award.
This chapter is only the latest in a book filled with adversity for Conner.
"It’s going to be a great story to tell," Conner said. "I just feel like it’s been against all odds, going all the way back to high school with not having scholarships to coming here and achieving what I did. Then having to go through a knee injury at the running back position and now cancer. When it’s all said and done man, I think we’re going to have a great story to tell. I’m just excited to tell that story."