Cancer-Surviving RB James Conner ‘Inspires Everybody’

After beating cancer, Pittsburgh running back James Conner hopes to beat NFL defenders for a team like the Green Bay Packers.

INDIANAPOLIS – Goosebumps.

That’s the feeling that enveloped Pittsburgh offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty when discussing the inspirational story of his teammate, star running back James Conner.

In 2014, Conner was a first-team All-American with 1,765 rushing yards and a school-record 26 rushing touchdowns. Conner, however, tore his MCL in the 2015 opener and sat out the rest of the season. The knee injury, however, was nothing compared to what was ahead. Conner was winded during his rehab. His face was puffy. On Thanksgiving 2015, he was diagnosed with cancer – Hodgkin’s lymphoma, more specifically.
Conner fought through 12 rounds of chemotherapy, each more difficult than the previous. The once-indomitable runner could hardly believe who he was looking at in the mirror.

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“I was tired and … weak,” he said in a first-person account for The Players’ Journal. “My body was resting in that chair, sure. But I couldn’t believe that the person sitting there was really me. It couldn’t be. I was ... known for running people over — either that or for stiff-arming would-be tacklers to the ground. Trying to bring me down was like trying to tackle a linebacker, and when I was locked in, no one was going to tackle me. No one. If I saw a defender in my way, I was lowering my shoulder, and it was not gonna be fun for the other guy. Sometimes I would just look at defenders like, Come on … you literally have no chance of tackling me. I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element. But that was before treatment six. Treatment six was no joke. Treatment six didn’t just stop me in my tracks, it took me down for a loss.”


Through it all, Conner never forgot about his team. And while Conner might have been low on energy himself, he provided a jolt of it to his teammates.

“His story inspires everyone,” Bisnowaty said on Thursday at the Scouting Combine. “For anyone to have cancer, a horrible thing, and to go ahead and beat it and play the game he loves, it’s unreal. He’s such an inspiration, especially when he was going through all that chemotherapy. People see all the videos that are posted up. That’s not fake. That’s who he is. That’s real. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it. He was getting treatment, coming in the next day and working out with us at 5:30 in the morning. ‘If he can do it …’ That really pushed me even harder. If he can come out here and go as hard as he can after getting chemotherapy the day before, I’m sure I pushed myself just as hard, if not harder.”

Conner’s story is one of the most inspirational in this draft class – his big comeback season notwithstanding. After sitting out the entire 2015 season, he rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior in 2016. Not surprisingly, Conner became more productive as the season progressed, with four 100-yard games in his final five regular-season games. In four games against ranked opponents, Conner rushed for at least 111 yards in each of them, including 132 yards in an upset of eventual national champion Clemson. He added 21 receptions for 302 yards and four more scores.

That all-around value will be embraced by scouts. So, too, will be the mental and physical toughness.

“That’s what I like to explain to the coaches,” Conner said on Thursday. “I ask the coaches, ‘What do you guys want in a RB?’ They want a tough guy. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none. I just been through so much and I think I’m more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.”

As a Day 3 pick, Conner’s potentially a good fit for the Green Bay Packers, regardless of whether they re-sign Eddie Lacy or make a play for a free agent like Adrian Peterson. At 233 pounds, he fits the Packers’ preference for a big running back – one that could provide an effective counterpunch to incumbent Ty Montgomery.

Conner said his latest cancer scan came on Feb. 23. It came back clean. He came to Indianapolis looking ahead and not looking back.

“I thank the Lord for that,” he said of being cancer-free. “I really just want to interview great, show teams my ability to compete on the field and run as fast as I can, and just compete out there.”

Bill Huber is publisher of and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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