INDIANAPOLIS -- James Conner may not be the highest draft pick -- or even a draft pick -- to come out of the NFL Combine this week. But there's little doubt he'll be the most inspirational story.
One of his linemen at Pitt even put a charge into a group of otherwise dull reporters who had come to ask about the courageous running back.
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"His story inspires everyone," Pitt left tackle Adam Bisnowaty said of Conner. "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 --"
Bisnowaty paused for a second to gather himself.
"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, of course, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2015. He continued to workout through chemotherapy treatments and was declared cancer free last May. He returned to the field last September one day shy of his knee injury and four months after his final chemo treatment. He went on to rush for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns (of 20 total) and won seemingly every comeback and courage award on the landscape.
A power runner in the Larry Csonka (6-3, 237) mold, Conner scored 56 career touchdowns at Pitt. He measured 6-1, 233 at the Combine and walked into the next room Thursday to tell the media about his goals this week with NFL teams.
"First to show that I’m healthy. That’s the number one thing," he said. "I got another clean scan, so I thank the Lord for that."
Conner, cleared once again last week, talked about his idol, Kansas City safety Eric Berry, who beat the same disease Conner is beating.
And Conner talked about meeting another cancer survivor he met recently while training in California.
"Gavin Escobar, tight end for the Cowboys, had testicular cancer when he was at San Diego State," Conner said. "I asked him if teams were scared about it coming back and he said no, he just heard a lot of congrats. So he said just be yourself. 'People will want to be a part of that. It's a great story to tell and teams want to be a part of it.' So I'm just looking forward to the draft."
Have teams been unrelenting with their questions about Conner's health?
"Not many questions," he said. "I'm hearing a lot of congrats actually. I had a clean scan last Thursday, so I'm up to date. They all got a copy of that so there's really no more questions about it. I'm healthy, so I'm just asking for an opportunity."
To that end, Conner is laser focused. After being told by one reporter that he can consider himself a hero with a platform to provide inspiration, Conner respectfully declined. For now.
"Right now I'm focused on playing football and getting an opportunity to make an NFL team," he said. "Later on when I'm successful, then we can start talking about the platform I'm on, but right now I just have tunnel vision and I'm trying to make the most of this opportunity."
Conner also spent time in California with one of his agent's other clients, Ben Roethlisberger. He was one of a group of quarterbacks who took young prospects such as Conner through topics on the whiteboard.
"They were helping me with protections," Conner said. "I feel more confident than ever talking to coaches about pass protection. I know all my stuff about it, so I'm confident with that."
And his receiving skills?
"Ben was throwing to me, Carson (Wentz) was throwing. It was awesome. I was running the routes that we're running here, so I'm excited to showcase it."
The Steelers, in fact, are looking for another running back. Has the Erie native heard from his old next door neighbors?
"I believe the Steelers are interested," Conner said. "I don't have any meetings with them tonight but I've got meetings with other teams so those are the teams I'm focused on. I'm playing all out for any team who gives me the opportunity. If it's the Steelers, that would be awesome. I've played at Heinz Field throughout college. If that's how it goes, that's awesome. If not, that's awesome, too."
PITT LINEMEN EMULATE STEELERS
Bisnowaty isn't the only NFL-caliber lineman who helped pave the way for Conner's 3,733 yards the last four seasons. Both the Pitt left tackle and the left guard, Dorian Johnson, are legitimate Day 2 prospects.
Johnson weighed in at 6-5, 300 pounds Thursday, down from the 315 he played at last season for Pitt. Rumor had it that the gentle giant has a "six pack" of ripped abdomen to show off, but he just laughed and declined to prove it.
Can Johnson get up into the second round on draft day?
"I really don't try to pay attention to any of that," he said. ."I know a lot of guys who check the draftboards and ask their agents, but I feel like nobody really knows at this point. Anything that's out at this point is just talk. So whenever draft day comes and I get drafted, I'm going to be happy with wherever I go."
A lifelong Steelers fan while growing up in nearby Belle Vernon, Johnson became enamored with Maurkice Pouncey when the Steelers center responded to a tweet of Johnson's while he was in high school. So when Johnson got to Pitt, he asked for No. 53 and joked that it helped propelled himself to become the first Pitt All-America offensive lineman since Ruben Brown in 1994.
"I just like the way he plays, athletic," Johnson said of Pouncey. "I think he's great with his hands. His pad level's great. He finishes. I could say the same exact thing about David DeCastro. He's actually one of my favorite players as well, being that he's a guard."
Johnson was a 5-star tackle coming out of Belle Vernon but moved inside to guard because of the presence of T.J. Clemmings and Bisnowaty at the tackle spots.
Bisnowaty is a potential Day 2 left tackle, and is also another local prep star -- from Fox Chapel -- who enjoyed practicing next door to the Steelers the last four years.
"Being a young guy from Pittsburgh, being brought up a Steelers fan, going out and watching them whatever time of year it may be, whether OTAs, in season, it was always fun to watch what they did and get a feel for what they were doing," he said. "As I got older I watched them even more closely. They're supposed to be the best. They are the best. So you watch them and try to take something from their game and try to put it into my own. I know this past year I really studied their tackles and their drills as well and worked them myself."
Bisnowaty said he came to know and respect Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
"It was really fun to watch him, especially this summer," Bisnowaty said. "They were re-doing their weight room, so all their weight room stuff was in our indoor facility, so we saw them almost every day and he was there every day working out and doing his hand stuff, his footwork. I was paying close attention to that and was able to talk to him. I met him off the field and he's a really nice guy. He's awesome."
Bisnowaty has actually started 43 games at left tackle in his four-year Pitt career, or seven more than Villanueva has started at the position in seven years of pro and college ball. "But he's a great guy who's doing a great job," said the bemused Bisnowaty. "The biggest thing he taught me was just staying positive throughout the whole process and having fun with it. It's a one-time journey, just keep moving forward, keep improving every day. He really does that himself and he wanted to share that with me."
Lastly, on what turned out to be a big day for local prospects, Rushel Shell, the young man who came out of Tony Dorsett's Hopewell High as the leading rusher in Pennsylvania schoolboy history, spent his media time trying to convince Pittsburgh reporters that his career is back on track.
A 5-star recruit and Scout.com's No. 4 RB prospect in 2012, Shell went to Pitt, rushed for 641 yards as a freshman, but was forced to transfer after finding himself in the coach's doghouse.
At West Virginia, Shell rushed for 2,010 yards in three seasons, which concluded with an injury-plagued 514-yard senior season.
Is he an NFL prospect?
"I still haven't played my best football yet," said the 5-10, 227-pound Shell. "I just want to show them I have a lot to offer and I'm willing to do whatever to be a part of the team and help them win."
Is his once-promising career back on track?
"Definitely," he said. "I made a lot of decisions in college. I paid my dues, and now it's just time for me to be able to display what I really got."
Shell said he's over the high ankle sprain that derailed his senior season and will compete in every event today.
What does he expect from his 40 time?
"We'll see tomorrow," said a young man who could claim that as a mantra.
"Being that young and having that much attention, sometimes you think you're more than what you really are," Shell reflected. "I let that take me downhill. But I'm mature and I understand there are a thousand me's, there are 33 me's here with the same dreams, the same capability. You've got to find a way to separate and show what you've got."
"Not taking advice from anybody, thinking I knew everything, thinking no matter what I did was right. I understand there was a lot of stuff I did wrong. But you learn, you grow. I'm thankful just to be here," he said.
"You know, I had the most yards in Pennsylvania history. I was full of myself. Now, I understand. I understand what you put into it is what you get out of it."
In a deep draft at running back, Shell is unlikely to be drafted. But if truly believes what he's saying, he has the talent to become a steal.
(Read Jon Ledyard to learn who the Steelers were talking to yesterday at the NFL Combine.)