Steelers’ James Conner Embraces Role as Cancer Survivor: ‘Fear is a Choice’

James Conner

Justin Berl/Getty Images James Conner of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before a game in 2019.

“God has already written a great story for you.” That’s what the University of Pittsburgh tight end Devon Edwards told teammate James Conner while the running back was in the midst of his fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had slowed his roll towards an NFL career.

At the time, Conner didn’t necessarily relish the idea of being known for having cancer; he simply wanted to be recognized for his exploits on the football field.

But these days Conner has fully embraced all aspects of his life story, which is told in his new memoir Fear is a Choice: Tackling Life’s Challenges with Dignity, Faith, and Determination (Harper Collins), which was written for the purpose of helping others to overcome adversity.

To be sure, it’s a book that will appeal to football fans—and Pittsburgh Steelers fans in particular—but it also contains helpful advice for anyone facing a challenge in their life, whether that’s a health crisis or another major obstacle.


Football Wasn’t James Conner’s Best Sport

Aspiring athletes and Steelers’ fans alike may find it interesting that Conner preferred basketball when he was growing up and only started playing football because his mom forced him to.

“I really enjoyed basketball and was really good at it,” Conner told Heavy.com. “My first year of football was in the fifth grade and I had fun with it but I didn’t see myself doing it long-term. I didn’t want to play football again, but [my mom] signed me up anyway, and then for some reason that second year I got into a groove with it.”

While Conner had “some natural talent,” as he puts it, he didn’t get to play much at running back in high school, as he couldn’t get to the top of the depth chart at his preferred position.

“My brother told me: ‘If you want to get your name out there and get a [football] scholarship you need to get on the field any way you can.’ So I went to play defense,” Conner said.

In fact, Conner got noticed by the University of Pittsburgh because of his ability to sack the quarterback. It was only later that he had a chance to demonstrate his talent at running back and Pitt switched him to the offensive side of the ball.


Playing in the NFL is ‘A Whole Lifestyle’

James Conner Pittsburgh Steelers

GettyPittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner during a game against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019.

As for why he succeeded at the University of Pittsburgh and made it to the NFL, Conner credits his work ethic above all else.

“I’ve had a lot of mentors in my life—a lot of football players and athletes that I look up to—and they all preach a work ethic,” Conner said. “You have to get better at every level, because the more plays you make the bigger your name gets and you become a target where defenses try to stop you, so everything gets a little bit harder.”

That’s why Conner describes playing in the NFL as “a whole lifestyle” that involves making the right choices every day in terms of eating right, working out and studying film. “The decisions you make each and every day are what make the big things possible,” he said.


James Conner’s Battle With Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

But there was a time when Conner’s dream of making it to the NFL seemed very much in doubt. In September 2015 he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament during the second quarter of a game against Youngstown State. Then, while rehabbing from his season-ending injury, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and suddenly something more than his football career was in doubt. His life was on the line.

“I tore my knee and then I started having symptoms when I was rehabbing,” Conner explained. “I was having night sweats and trying to work out but I couldn’t really do it as I would get short of breath. That’s how it popped up and I found out it was cancer.”

Conner says he was scared when he first saw his cancer diagnosis on a computer screen: “Symptoms consistent with lymphoma.” But more than that, he was confused.

“I don’t have a long family history [of cancer] and I felt like I was in the best shape ever and was eating healthy at the university, so I was like, ‘Man, how did this happen?’” Conner said. “You hear about people having cancer but you never think it can happen to you until it does, so I was really shocked and confused about how I got it. I had all these questions in my head and then I met my doctor and he got me through it.”


Kansas City Chiefs Safety Eric Berry Provided a Blueprint for Recovery

Another individual who helped Conner get through his battle with cancer was former Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after his NFL career was underway. Yet he came back to thrive in the NFL after beating cancer.

Conner recalls that knowing there was a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor in the NFL gave him a huge boost of confidence. More than that, Berry provided tips on what to expect from the treatments and how to continue working out while going through chemotherapy, which required Conner to wear a surgical mask and avoid damaging the port catheter in his chest.

Now that Conner has made it in the NFL, he’s only too happy to offer advice and encouragement to others any way he can. For one, Conner plans to continue his practice of hosting five cancer patients or survivors at each Pittsburgh Steelers’ home game. He also visits with cancer patients at Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, where he received treatment.

“It’s a beautiful thing for me to be able to go back there and provide some support and inspiration,” Conner said. “I was sitting in those chairs getting the same medicine that those patients are getting. I can relate firsthand so it means a lot.”


‘Fear is a Choice’

James Conner Injury Status Updates

GettyPittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner.

As for people who are currently undergoing uncertainty, instability or adversity in their lives, Fear is a Choice includes more than its share of useful insights. Many of those insights involve how to reject fear.

If you watched Conner announce his diagnosis at a press conference in December 2015, you know that he said:

“When I heard those words—“You have cancer”—I admit I was scared. But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice. I choose not to fear cancer. I choose to fight it, and I will win…. I know God would never bring me to something He can’t bring me through.

The ‘fear is a choice’ mantra was embraced right away by Conner’s friends and family members, many of whom have a ‘fear is a choice’ tattoo as a measure of support. And Pittsburgh fans have also been getting ‘fear is a choice’ tattoos, prompting Conner to marvel at how wide the mantra has spread. “The support is very real,” he said.

As for how Conner suggests combating fear, the gist of his message is: Feeling fearful does not mean you have to live in fear.

Or as he puts it in Fear is a Choice: “You can take deliberate action to choose to move away from your worries and toward behaviors that will serve your ultimate purpose in life more fully. Fear does nothing to improve your life or build your dreams. Patience, endurance, and determination will get you a whole lot farther down the road toward your target than fear will.”

Meanwhile, Conner now recognizes that God had a plan for him that was destined to take him beyond becoming a football star.

“[At first], I didn’t want to be labeled as a cancer survivor, but honestly being a survivor touches so many more people than being a football player. It helps people in a much bigger way than just running the football. It took me some growing and some maturing to learn that.”

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