James Conner is a cancer survivor. James Conner is Le’Veon Bell’s replacement. James Conner is a pretty darned good NFL running back.
Listening to the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast of the Steelers’ 30-27 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you probably caught more than a few mentions of the first one. The second one was practically jammed down your throat.
The third? Well, it seems that at least according to the Worldwide Leader, Conner has not risen to the level of an NFL player whose contributions on the field deserve discussion on their own merits.
Which is a shame, because it’s not just what he went through in college three years ago or the name of the player that he’s replacing that’s going to define Conner’s career.
He’s a real-life NFL player. A good one. He’s sixth in the league in rushing yards after three games. He grown in the passing game and as a blocker to become a three-down back to the point that after three games, backup Stevan Ridley has a grand total of three carries.
That’s not to say he’s perfect. I don’t think he’d say he’s perfect. He’s a young player, a second-year player, that’s going to grow and learn and make mistakes along the way.
He came into the league at the same time as fellow Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.J. Watt. Yes, there’s talk about Smith-Schuster’s social media interactions and Watt’s more famous brother, but they are players that also rate honest-to-God discussions about their pro’s and con’s, their X’s and O’s and about what they’re doing on every play.
Only framing Conner’s career as that of a cancer survivor instead of that of a promising young running back diminishes the work that he put in and the time that he spent recovering from that disease so that he could return to his passion and his calling without it defining his career.
There’s a good story to Conner’s career arc. Of all people, I should know that. I was fortunate to get to tell most of it. But those pages have closed. Where Conner goes from here will be about how he takes advantage of the opportunity he’s been given. Whether he makes it big, fizzles out or somewhere in between, that’s the story that’s yet to be told.
It’s the story he’s earned.