Conner No Sideshow To Steelers

The Steelers' top story on Day 2 of the draft became James Conner, the hammer of a Pitt running back.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't draft Pitt superstar running back and cancer survivor James Conner in the third round yesterday for the story.

Running backs coach James Saxon couldn't make that clear enough.

"Any of these kids getting the opportunity to get picked by an NFL team, they have earned it and deserved it," said Saxon. "This guy is no different."

But he is different. 

Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2015. He practiced through chemotherapy treatments and was declared cancer free last May. He returned last September and rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns (of 20 total) and was everyone's Comeback Player of the Year. 

The 6-1, 233-pounder rushed for 3,733 yards in his Pitt career and scored an ACC-record 56 touchdowns.

At the NFL Combine, his teammates talked of seeing him at practice at 5:30 the morning after a chemo treatment with a white mask as a safeguard against infection. He inspired his team, the region and is well known to everyone in the Steelers organization.

Even the ornery running backs coach.

"I saw some of it on television," Saxon said. "Again, that’s not the focus I had on terms of evaluating this young man. What I did was I looked at the tape and the tape told me what he was."

It's not that Saxon hadn't been inspired by Conner's story.  

It's that Saxon is impressed by Conner the football player. Saxon wanted to make sure that point was driven home.

"This is not a story about sentiment," he said in his final comment to the Pittsburgh media. "This is a story about a young man that is a very good football player."

And then Saxon finally chuckled.

"I hope that the guys that we play against are sentimental because he is going to share with them some sentimental, physical things."

That caused the media room to erupt into laughter, but a few minutes later Conner was on the phone choking back tears.

"It’s a dream come true," Conner said. "I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them."

Conner was again given a clean slate by doctors last February and has been training in preparation for the NFL ever since.

Raised in Erie, where he led McDowell High to the quarterfinals of the PIAA Quad-A playoffs, Conner rushed for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2012. He set the school record with 164 points and 26 touchdowns, and as a defensive end he also set a school record with 12 sacks in a season and 17 in a career.

In 2013, he became the first true freshman to lead Pitt in rushing and rushing touchdowns since Dion Lewis in 2009, and in 2014 became the first Pitt running back to be named first-team All-America by the AFCA since Craig "Ironhead" Heyward in 1987. Conner had rushed for 1,765 yards that season, his last at full strength because he suffered a torn MCL in his right knee in the opening game of the 2015 season. 

After surgery, Conner began feeling weak and sick and underwent an X-ray, and then a PET scan, and was diagnosed with the disease. The return to full strength wasn't complete until the second half of last season. 

And Friday night he was drafted by the Steelers.

"I’m right back at Heinz Field," he said. "The city has been great to me. There are huge things left to come."

Conner was partying with friends at Buffalo Wild Wings in Erie, and it was a long night. He was chosen with the 105th pick, or three before the third round, and Day 2 of the draft, ended.

"I was getting a little antsy and a little worried because I know my talent level," Conner said. "I saw some other running backs go before me. I’m different, and I know what my talent is. I got a little worried at first, but it’s Steelers Nation and I’m coming home."

Conner, of course, realizes he'll start his professional career as a backup.

"Obviously Le’Veon Bell is the primary running back," Conner said. "He’s one of my guys and good friends. He’s put the work in and proven it. He earned [the right] to do what he does best. Whenever I come into the game, whether it is special teams or anything, I’m going to make sure to give it my all and help the team anywhere they need me."

"Different kind of guy," said Saxon. "But a smart football player, tough, physical. The guy has great stature, and that is something that is going to pay dividends as we go down the road."

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