LATROBE, Pa. — The catharsis came inside a crowded restaurant on that raucous Friday night in late April when James Conner picked up the phone and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on the other end telling Conner he was about to be selected in the third round of the NFL draft.
That’s when the tears came. That’s when Conner took a deep breath and celebrated the final steps in his draining journey from marginal college prospect to record-setting running back to cancer patient to the highest level of his chosen profession.
There were no tears when Conner arrived at Saint Vincent College on Thursday to start training camp. No moment in the dorm room he’s sharing with second-round pick Juju Smith-Schuster to think about just how far he’s come.
If Conner is being honest. He’s ready to move on. While his spirited and ultimately one-sided battle with lymphoma in 2015 and 2016 turned the former Pitt star into a role model, made #ConnerStrong very much a thing and turned his No. 30 Steelers jersey into a hot seller before he even signed his contract now he sees himself as just another rookie trying to make it.
“There’s no emotion (about) being a cancer survivor and everything,” Conner said Friday as the Steelers opened camp. “I’m a good football player. All the emotional part, ‘Oh wow, I’m in the NFL,’ that’s all behind me.”
The 22-year-old is only focused on what’s ahead, namely trying to get a firm grasp of the intricacies of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s playbook and developing a rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With Pro Bowler Le’Veon Bell yet to sign his franchise tag-tender and report to camp, Conner and former Kansas City Chiefs backup Knile Davis find themselves splitting carries with the starters.
Conner understands he’s not Bell. Then again, neither is anyone else in the NFL.
“He set the bar, he definitely set the bar high with his receiving and his running ability and his pass blocking, in every category to me he’s the best running back in the game,” Conner said. “I’ve got to get in a rhythm. It’ll give me an opportunity to work with Ben a little bit so there’s no drop-off in the rhythm when Bell comes out of the game.”
Conner, wearing yellow game pants rather than shorts (a habit he picked up from Pittsburgh All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown), spent two soggy hours on Friday darting all over the field. When he wasn’t working with the punt protection unit , he was lining up in the slot — yes, in the slot — during the team’s 2-point drill or setting up behind Roethlisberger then trying to weave his way through a sea of arms, legs churning all the while.
During one sequence Conner headed left, cut right and lowered his shoulders then kept right on chugging 60 yards to the end zone long after coaches had whistled the play dead. Following a hamstring injury that limited him during organized team activities and minicamp, Conner is only too eager to show he’s more than just a feel-good story.
“The slogan here is ‘the best ability is availability,'” Conner said. “It’s a moving train as Coach T says, so hop on. We get in what we put in.”
Even if what Conner has put in over the last two years has been a little more than most. He was the reigning ACC Player of the Year when he tore the MCL in his right knee in Pitt’s 2015 season opener before being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma around Thanksgiving. Six months of energy-sapping, mettle-testing chemotherapy followed, then another six months of proving he was all the way back during his redshirt junior season with the Panthers.
Consider the Steelers believers. Then again, they had a pretty good view. The club shares a training complex with Pitt, and the Steelers watched as Conner went from a modestly regarded recruit (he signed with the Panthers as a defensive end) to a wrecking ball of a back who set an ACC record for career touchdowns.
If Bell is healthy and around, Bell knows touches will be hard to come by this season. That’s fine. There are other ways to contribute. A year ago he was getting reacquainted with football after it was nearly taken away from him. Now he’s eager to show he’s more than just a feel-good story. He knows what his defiant battle against cancer meant to others. He just wants to show he’s more than just a feel-good story about perseverance.
“I came a long way from the University of Pittsburgh, not in distance wise but you know, in life,” he said. “I’m excited about it all. I believe in myself, I think I’m ready.”
NOTES: Smith-Schuster tweaked a lower-body injury during the early portion of practice but was able to return. … S Daimion Stafford, who was placed on the reserve/did not report list on Thursday, arrived at camp and practiced on Friday. Tomlin said his understanding was Stafford was considering retirement.