Conner closing in on full recovery

James Conner threw out the first pitch at the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and is just over a month away from completing his treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

James Conner received a roar of applause and a standing ovation as he was announced to a sellout crowd of 39,500 at PNC Park Sunday afternoon. 

He stepped to the mound, leaned in as if to take his sign from catcher Chris Stewart then came set. Conner raised his leg, planted and fired toward home plate. 

His aim was true. 

But the toss bounced a few feet in front of home plate into Stewart's mitt. Even as Conner gestured in mock frustration, the crowd cheered as he then slapped hands with Stewart and enjoyed the moment. 

"I was practicing with [strength] coach Austin Strapp," Conner said. "We were practicing, but when I got up there it looked farther than I expected."

It surely wasn't the worst toss seen at PNC Park by an honorary first-pitcher, but it may have been one of the most meaningful. It was Conner's first time doing something on a field since he was sidelined for the season Sept. 5 in Pitt's opener against Youngstown State, and his first time in the public eye since he announced his cancer diagnosis Dec. 4. 

Conner knows he has fans, now more than ever, but Sunday's opportunity provided a moment for the widespread support to become tangible. 

"It feels really good," Conner said. "Also it helps me take my mind off things, so for me to come out and do this is really special."

Head coach Pat Narduzzi and fellow redshirt junior Rachid Ibrahim accompanied Conner to the North Side Sunday, where he donned a custom jersey emblazoned with his name and the number 16. 

Conner's already felt the support from his coaches and teammates, and the hurt felt by his friends upon learning of the diagnosis assured him he had more support from them than he could ever possibly ask for. 

"When I’m walking around the facility those guys got Conner Strong bracelets on so I just know they’ve got my back 100 percent," Conner said. "I owe it to them to be back on the field."

Aside from those associated with the football program, Conner has been taken aback by the outpouring of support from sources like Penguins legend Mario Lemieux and Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Both endured a bout of Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Berry returned the football field for the 2015 season after he received his diagnosis in December 2014. 

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle joked before the game there was a lot of pressure on Conner to not bounce the pitch, but loved to see one of the city's representatives have a chance to enjoy a special moment.

"It's another way he can show his perseverance, his resiliency, his strength, his focus to be a part of it," Hurdle said. "A job well done."

Conner already was a symbol of strength, a role model, for many prior to his Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis. The last four months have added even more perspective. 

"People complain about it just being a regular Monday," Conner says, "but they’ve got good health, good job and all that but it’s just a Monday and they’re complaining. Just letting people know it could be worse in my scenario, it could always be worse so, like, just having an influence on people to never give up."

So far, he's shown the same spirit in battling cancer as he does punishing would-be tacklers on the football field. Conner says he's taking it day-by-day, but don't think for a second he doesn't have his eye on Pitt's season-opener Sept. 3 against Villanova at Heinz Field.

Conner looks at each treatment as a chance to get better, and is sure to work out on days he undergoes treatment. While most might lay in bed, Conner says there's "no time to be tired" with a season coming up and by doing both in one day, he feels he grows not only healthier, but stronger. 

As far as football goes, Conner wants to return to the field for his family, friends, teammates and fans. But no one holds Conner more accountable than himself. 

"The main thing is the promise I make to myself," Conner said. "I want to play at the highest level of football and obviously finish my college here before I go there. That’s what I want to do and that’s just the main thing, is just keeping the promise I made to myself."

Conner is still about a month away from completing his chemotherapy treatment, but his health is already beginning to show signs of returning to what it was prior to his diagnosis. He says he is maintaining his weight and doesn't feel fatigued, but will need to regain some strength in the months after. 

"My breathing tests are coming back smooth," Conner said. "I’m getting sleep, I wasn’t getting any sleep so things are falling into place like how they used to be before I even knew of me having cancer."

The next treatment will be April 11, then the penultimate chemo session follows two weeks later. Conner's chemotherapty is scheduled to end May 9 with his 12th chemotherapy treatment. After that, Conner says, Dr. Stanley Marks wants to wait a few weeks before he conducts a PET scan to examine his tissue and determine the state of his cancer. 

Conner's birthday also happens to fall on May 5, when he turns 21. When the tissue scan hopefully delivers a clean bill of health for Conner a few weeks later?

"Best birthday present ever."

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