James Conner was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The best story in the 2017 NFL Draft could not possibly have gotten any better. And yet somehow it did.
Conner was a good football player at the start of his college career, who turned himself into a star for Pittsburgh by the end of his freshman year and into his sophomore season. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and incredible 26 touchdowns in 2014, earning ACC player of the year honors, but after an injury derailed his junior season, things went from bad to beyond worse. Conner started to develop headaches and night sweats during his rehab, which is when doctors found a tumor around his heart, diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Conner fought to not only stay alive, but to stay a part of the Pitt football team. The guy would go from chemo treatments to practice, often doing drills with a mask over his face to protect himself from germs and infection. The word inspiration doesn’t do his story justice.
He returned to the field for his senior season at Pitt just four months after his last chemotherapy treatment. Conner played all 13 games in 2016, rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns, though he said he didn’t feel like he was back to his former self until the fifth or sixth game of the year.
In all, Conner finished his career rushing for 3,733 games and 52 touchdowns in 39 games, adding another 412 yards and four scores on in the air. His senior season ended in disappointment, though, rushing just eight times in the Panthers’ bowl loss to Northwestern after getting hurt early in the game. That said, his work at the NFL Combine had teams interested in taking him in one of the early-to-mid rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, and had the Steelers concerned enough that another team might take him early Saturday that they made the move to get him in the late third round Friday night.
Conner’s story is truly remarkable, and now he’ll have the opportunity to show his resiliency in the NFL, in the city he’s already become a star and a hero to so many.
The Steelers were very active Friday, after taking T.J. Watt in the first round late Thursday night. In the second round, the Steelers took wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster from USC, a selection that led to one of the great tweets in Pittsburgh sports history.
They then took Cameron Sutton, a cornerback out of Tennessee to help with their woeful pass defense. (Note: They still need more help with their woeful pass defense.)
Then, with the 105th pick in the draft, they nabbed Conner.
Conner will obviously be a back-up in the NFL to start his career, as the Steelers have the best running back in football in Le’Veon Bell. Still, the Steelers have always been a run-heavy team and even with 100 receivers on the roster at this point (give or take), there will be opportunities to grind out games. “Le’Veon Bell might break your ankles,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said Friday night. “James Conner might break your facemask.”
There are some concerns about Conner’s game at the NFL level, and while he may not project to be an All-Pro, starting-caliber running back, he’ll have time to prove his doubters wrong. And still, no matter what happens in his NFL career, this is a win. For him, for the Steelers, and for the city.