Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner is going to his first Pro Bowl, three years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. He shared a text that helped.
Three years ago, James Conner — then a star running back at the University of Pittsburgh — was getting ready to begin treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, he’s a first-time Pro Bowl running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Conner was rehabilitating from a torn MCL that ruined his junior season at Pitt when he got the diagnosis in December 2015 that he had cancer of the lymphatic system.
He had enjoyed a breakout sophomore season for the Panthers in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns while helping the Panthers to an Armed Forces Bowl bid, earning ACC Player of the Year honors in the process.
After being named to the Pro Bowl Tuesday night, Conner took to social media, sharing a text message he got from fellow Pro Bowler and former college teammate Aaron Donald of the St. Louis Rams.
Conner was a freshman at Pitt in 2013 when Donald was a senior, on his way to winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors along with the Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi awards and the Outland Trophy.
Conner returned to Pitt in 2016 as a redshirt junior and put up 1,092 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns before entering the NFL Draft in 2017.
He was taken in the third round by the Steelers, the 105th overall pick, and gained just 144 yards on 32 carries as a rookie backing up All-Pro Le’Veon Bell.
With Bell holding out this season, Conner stepped into the feature back role in Pittsburgh and has thrived, rushing for 909 yards and 12 touchdowns and catching 52 passes for 467 yards and a score before going down with the dreaded high-ankle sprain in a 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 2.
He has missed the last two games for the 8-5-1 Steelers, who lead the Baltimore Ravens by a half-game in the AFC North with a road game upcoming Sunday against the 12-2 New Orleans Saints before closing at home on Dec. 30 against the Cincinnati Bengals (6-8).
Donald earned his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection for the Rams this season, leading the NFL with 16½ sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He has been an All-Pro pick each of the last three seasons and was the Defensive Player of the Year last season.
It’s easy sometimes to forget players are people and sometimes we can also forget that the bonds forged while young athletes play together and work together at the collegiate level can last a lifetime.
Donald’s message from 2015 to a kid he played with for one season is a terrific reminder of that.