COOK: James Conner leaves Pittsburgh with indelible legacy of toughness and courage

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
James Conner is shown here during his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I won't remember his good times in Pittsburgh so much, not that there weren't plenty.

His 2014 season at Pitt when, as a sophomore, he rushed for 1,765 yards, scored 26 touchdowns and was ACC Player of the Year, finishing ahead of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. His 2018 season with the Steelers when he made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns. His nine career 100-yard games in the NFL.

I won't remember his bad times, either. He also had a number of those. His knee injury at Pitt in the opening game of the 2015 season. His killer fumbles with the Steelers at Cleveland and Denver in 2018 and at San Francisco in 2019. All of his injuries — one after another — that kept him from reaching his full potential.

No, I'll remember this story about James Conner from Pat Narduzzi, his coach at Pitt:

"My mother-in-law, she was fighting cancer and sat right in that chair where you're sitting and talked to James about it," Narduzzi said in his South Side office in November 2016. "They talked chemo together. How many people can do that? He inspired her. No question. On her bad days, she would put on her James Conner Pitt baseball cap. It would make her feel better. ...

"Everyone wants to be like James. He's a special guy."

Sandra Silva didn't win her battle with cancer. She died in October 2016. But that doesn't mean she wasn't lifted by Conner and his will to beat the deadly disease. Who will forget his reaction when he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma on Thanksgiving 2015?

"Fear is a choice," Conner said a few days after his illness became public. "I choose to fight it, and I will win."

Conner shared that message with countless cancer patients, telling each and every one, "If I can beat it, so can you."

"It wasn't just about saving his own life," Narduzzi said in that same 2016 interview. "It's never been about just that."

Comeback kid: Conner came back from not just the cancer, but also his torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee to have a big season for Pitt in 2016. He played a significant role in the unforgettable wins against Penn State and Clemson. He set the ACC career record for touchdowns. He was a third-round draft choice by the Steelers in 2017 and more than lived up to the expectations despite his fumbles and injuries.

Now, it's on to the Valley of the Sun for Conner. Yes, he said, he's looking forward to that beautiful sun after signing a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. How could a kid from cold, snowy Erie not love the warm weather?

"The right place at the right time," Conner said at his introductory news conference Tuesday.

"This is God's plan for me."

Clearly, the deal with the Cardinals gives Conner peace of mind. There had been weeks of speculation about where he might land, about what the market might be for him.

If there was a market at all.

"I've got a home. I feel accepted. They believe in me," Conner told the Arizona media.

Feeling "brand new" in Arizona: Conner is expected to share time with Chase Edmonds in the Cardinals' backfield.

"I feel brand new," Conner said. "Pittsburgh, my time there was great. I'm looking forward to a change. I look at this as an opportunity for me to grow."

Here's wishing Conner well.

I know Narduzzi is rooting for him. So is Mike Tomlin.

How can anyone here not root for Conner, not so much because of what he did for Pitt and the Steelers, but for what he has stood for as a man?

All of Pittsburgh should be pulling for him.