Pitt's Conner fights for his life

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — On the day after Christmas, James Conner was smiling like a kid who just received the greatest of all gifts.

Pitt running back James Conner, who has recovered from cancer, is an NFL draft prospect after rushing for more than 1,000 yards this season.

Less than a week after his second of 12 chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma, Conner walked onto the field at St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School.

It was Pitt's final practice of the season in advance of Monday's Military Bowl, and everyone was in an upbeat mood.

Especially Conner, never mind that he's fighting a dreaded disease.

Conner watched much of the day's activities from the middle of the field, chatting and joking with the men he calls his “brothers.”

He also spent several minutes answering questions and appearing more relaxed and at ease than at any time during his three seasons at Pitt.

He even shot 3-pointers in the school's gymnasium with Pitt media relations director Ted Feeley. Conner missed them all, screeching playfully as the basketball bounced off the rim.

“I look at life different,” said Conner, 20.

The fight of his life has just begun, but Conner already is talking about the spoils of victory. He can envision himself running onto the field at Heinz Field for Pitt's 2016 opener against Villanova.

“It's going to be huge,” he said. “It's going to be a very special day.”

Conner's scheduled chemotheraphy treatments — the next one is Jan. 4 — will end sometime next summer, about three months before the start of the season.

“I have no doubts at all. I'll be out there for Villanova,” he said.

That's more than eight months from now, but Conner is willing to wait.

“It's all going to make for a greater story to tell when it's all said and done,” he said.

The good news is that the tumors in his chest and neck are shrinking.

“The tumor in my chest was 14 centimeters, and it shrunk to 11,” he said. “The one in the neck went down, too. Hopefully, every treatment it goes down a little bit more.”

Conner, who said he was in the best physical shape of his life prior to the season, has experienced no serious side effects from the chemo.

But he knows it's early in the process.

“It's not that bad, actually,” he said. “Stomach ache, a little nausea, but I haven't thrown up yet. Little fatigued, tired, obviously, but it's a mental fight.”

With some of the pressure off the vein that carries blood to the heart, he even has experienced more energy. He said the only hair he lost occurred when he got a haircut.

“For some people, it gets worse as you do (the treatments). But everybody is different. I look at myself as young and healthy. Hopefully, I'll just breeze through with the physical part. Face still a little swelled up.

“I'm pale, but I'm getting healthier.”

He said there is a port in his chest that pumps fluids into his body to kill the cancerous cells. He hopes to mitigate the side effects by drinking a gallon of water a day to wash out the chemicals after they have served their medical purpose.

He was offered a private room at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers, but he refused it.

“There's no need for that,” he said. “I'm just like everybody else. There's one guy who was going there for six years. If you think your situation is bad, it could be worse.”

It's difficult to imagine any local athlete enduring a tougher year than Conner, who missed most of the season with a knee injury before his Hodgkin diagnosis.

“I get a lot of my strength from within but also from my teammates, the whole staff (at Pitt). It's pretty amazing,” he said.

Conner said he procured his draft evaluation from the NFL, but he said he hasn't looked at the results and just wants to focus on his recovery and the 2016 Pitt season.

“The decision (on whether to enter the draft) was made for me,” he said.

Conner said he has received support from several athletes who have been or are engaged in the same fight, including Mario Lemieux, Merril Hoge, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry and Clemson pitcher Clate Schmidt, who reached out to Conner through Instagram. The two ACC athletes talk every day.

But no show of support can equal the motivation he gets from his paternal grandmother Ruby Conner, a breast cancer survivor.

“I get my strength from her,” Conner said. “Her hair came back (after chemo) and she was cooking Christmas dinner.

“She left a plate for me.”