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INDIANAPOLIS — Pitt running back James Conner has been overcoming the odds long before he beat cancer.
Coming out of Erie’s Cathedral Prep high school, Conner had just three Division I offers — to play defensive end. He ended up choosing Pitt and after a complex series of events, was moved to running back, where he ended up being the ACC Player of the Year in 2014 and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher.
Now, he’s looking for success in the NFL, and once again, he’s against the odds. Conner isn’t one of the most highly rating running backs in a deep class. At the NFL Combine, where a lot of the focus is on who is the fastest and who is the strongest, he isn’t likely to win many of those comparisons.
There’s also the fact that Conner is just over a year out from his cancer diagnoses, and there’s always the fear that it could return. He said that some of his fears about that being used against him were assuaged by Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar, who is also a cancer survivor. Escobar and Conner are represented by the same agency and they’ve been working out in California together.
“[Escobar] had testicular cancer when he was at San Diego State,” Conner said. “I asked him if they were scared to look at [drafting] you and if they were scared about it coming back. He said no, he got a lot of ‘congrats.’
That’s the same reception Conner has receiver, with more teams congratulating him on beating cancer than questioning that battle’s possible effect on his NFL future. In fact, Conner feels that being able to tell his story is something that could be considered an asset.
“People want to be a part of that,” Conner said. “It’s a great story to tell and teams want to be a part of it.”
When Conner received his diagnosis, one of the first people to reach out to him was Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. The two became close friends, talking frequently about the process. A few months later, Berry surprised Conner with a visit during Conner’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Earlier this week, the Chiefs signed Berry to a six-year, $78 million contract extension, giving Conner an additional reassurance that he’ll be looked at as something more than just a player that beat cancer.
“It shows that you can come back after something like we went through,” he said. “So it gives hope, really.”
But it really is a deep class. Even among the rest of his conference mates in the ACC, Conner is likely to be the second drafted, behind Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Sports Illustrated has ranked him No. 13 amongst draft-eligible backs, and he’ll likely be a second or third day pick.
But there’s hope to found there, as well. Of the NFL’s top 10 players in rushing yards in 2016, five were taking in the fourth round or later — or not at all. Furthermore, rising to the top from that type of draft position doesn’t have to take an entire career to do. Miami’s Jay Ajayi broke out for 1,272 yards in his second season with the Dolphins after being selected in the fifth round in 2015. Chicago’s Jordan Howard rushed for 1,313 yards as a rookie after being taken in the fifth round out of Indiana less than a year ago. That’s just further proof that if a back has the talent, it won’t take long for him to be given a chance.
“I’m playing all-out for any team that takes me,” he said. “Even if I go in there undrafted, I’m going to go in there and give everything I’ve got to make the team and make somebody proud.”