In the past couple of seasons, Steeler Nation has been besieged with tough pills to swallow when it comes to player news. James Harrison’s alleged insubordination, Le’Veon Bell’s failure to report at all last year and Antonio Brown forcing a trade for a cash grab have all made us, as Steeler fans, reluctant to check whatever outlet we rely on for Steelers news. When I came across James Conner on the “Ya Neva Know: you know what I mean?” podcast revealing that his cancer diagnosis was coupled with one week to live without his receiving immediate treatment, I took a step back and had a revelation about life being so much more than numbers on a scoreboard and a stat sheet. Yes, we know how it has turned out so far with Conner enjoying a fine start to his NFL career and in remission, but it helped me realize once again that those previously-mentioned player shenanigans pale dramatically in comparison to what the young running back has had to deal with.
After his 2014 season when he was named the ACC Player of the Year and honored as a First-Team All American, the enormous hopes that Conner had for his following season were dashed when he tore an MCL and he felt like the news was “the worst thing in the world”. But after beginning an intense rehab with the intention to get back that same 2015 season, JC began experiencing night sweats and was barely getting 15 minutes of sleep per night. After a trip to the doctor to find out what was the source of the alarm, the MCL was no longer as devastating when James learned that he had tumors surrounding his heart and a diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma. To make things worse, at the rate the tumors were growing, he’d be gone in a week without instantly undergoing care. That was the day before Thanksgiving in 2015. After a serious battle, great strides and blessing were being realized. By May of 2016, James Conner announced that he was cancer free and ready to get back to football. He returned with a great final season at Pitt, was drafted in the Round 3 of the 2017 draft and had a top-selling Jersey for a few weeks before training camp in Latrobe even began.
So this is the part in the column where I would typically review James Conner’s stats from the first two years of his NFL career for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They don’t matter. What matters is what he has gone through off of the football field and how he has approached it. Not just how he has handled it with grace in the public eye, but how he processed it when those words sucker punched him in the face, how he agonized telling his family, what occurred in his head when he was lying in bed at night or was alone with nothing but racing thoughts of fear, dread and doom.
I’d like to say that I can’t relate to any of that, but I can. 16 years ago on this very date of July 18, 2003. I stood in shock while my doctor callously asked me this question...“You ever here of Lance Armstrong?”. At that point, a person’s head is filled with an avalanche of questions. All I could think of is “what do I do now?” and “could this be the end”. But I do remember what I said next and it’s probably the proudest moment of my life and the most important inquiry I’ve ever made in my days on this earth...“What do we gotta do?”. Two surgeries later, I was deemed in remission.
When I announced my being cancer free, I received news from my estranged wife that rocked me to my very core. But the amazing thing about going through a major life crisis is that people that genuinely care about you (even one’s that you’re previously unaware of) come from all angles and help you through things when you need them the most. On New Years Eve that year, I was on the phone with my mother and she mentioned how glad I probably was that the worst year of my life was over and that I could start anew in 2004. I replied that 2003 was the best year of my life because I knew that I could face my biggest fears, that I realized my worth on this earth in my particular “village” and I found my personal meaning in the form of perspective.
When I listened to the podcast featuring James story of inspiration, I no longer viewed him as a football player...I now see him as merely a courageous person that overcame fear and dread and doom and found a way to fight his way back. I have greater respect for that than I do for his making the Pro Bowl, which is a great feat.
One thing that he said really hit home for me and took me back 16 years to the toughest moment of the entire ordeal. It was how hard it was to tell his four older brothers. The only time that I cried was when I had to call home to Johnstown and tell my mom. I knew it would destroy her and I didn’t know if I could face telling her. But I got through it. I got through it by having loving people in my life. James Conner got through it by having the same sort of support that I did. One thing that I found myself doing was trying to comfort others that I would be okay when informing them of my situation.
I realize that there are a lot of other people that are battling cancer now and some that have not had the blessings that James Conner and I have had. At least four of them are in my circle as we speak fighting for their very existence. All I can do is pray, offer support and do everything I can to help them fight.
A few months ago, I met James Conner at an autograph signing and I thanked him for being an inspiration for myself and plenty of others. I then wished him continued health and good fortune. I shared that I was a survivor as well and what came next will never leave my head and heart. He looked at me and genuinely asked how I was doing now and said “Thanks for tellin* me that. May God Bless You”.
I’m not trying to compare myself to James Conner, but as we posed for a picture, a 47-year old man and a 24-year old superstar of an athlete stood together as two of the most blessed people on earth and nothing more. It’s safe to say that No. 30 is 100 per cent No. 1 in my eyes.
So Thank You...James Conner. Thank you for sharing your human side with the world and me in those few moments. Also, it made me realize that we can never forget that it’s our accomplishments as human beings, the way we represent ourselves and the way we treat others...not just in our personal village, but those we encounter in every day life even for the first time that matter most.