It’s a story reminiscent of that of Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t get to play quarterback until his senior year in high school because another player was ahead of him on the depth chart.
When James Conner was a junior in high school, he had RB Greg Garmon ahead of him on the depth chart, who had survived getting cancer at age 14 to become the tenth-ranked high school running back in the country.
Garmon’s All-American level success was threatening Conner’s chances of earning a college scholarship—and called for drastic measures.
As Conner recently recounted to Heavy.com: “My brother was telling me: ‘If you want to get a scholarship you need to get your name out there and you need to try to get on the field as best you can in any way.’”
Conner took the opportunity to play on the defensive line, accumulating 12 sacks in five-and-a-half games.
“I went to the state prospect camp during the summer as a defensive end,” Conner added, and it was at that prospect camp where he earned his scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.
It was only after Greg Garmon was gone that Conner got the opportunity to be his high school team’s starting running back.
“And then Pitt called and said, ‘Hey, when you get here actually we want you to play running back,’ Conner told Heavy.com. “But at first my scholarship was for defense.”
Grateful for the chance to reinvent himself
In his new memoir, Fear is a Choice: Tackling Life’s Challenges With Dignity, Faith, and Determination, Conner wonders what might have been if he had been stubborn and refused to switch positions.
“Swallowing my pride and moving to another position to get playing time had proven to be the very move that had opened doors for me,” he writes in the book. “If I hadn’t been willing to adjust my attitude instead of clinging stubbornly to the one vision I had for myself as a player, I might never have had this chance.”
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Conner played a little D-line at Pitt (with Aaron Donald)
The story doesn’t quite end there, however. In Pitt’s final game of the 2013 season—the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against the Bowling Green Falcons—Conner rushed for 229 yards, breaking the University of Pittsburgh’s bowl game record, which had been set by NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett back in 1976.
More remarkable, perhaps, is that at the end of that game, Conner was sent out to play defensive end. In the tweet below, you see him bull-rushing the quarterback and drawing a holding penalty against an offensive tackle.
Then on the next play you see Conner having a meeting at the quarterback with Aaron Donald, who soon went on to become a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams, and has since developed into one of the best players in the NFL.
Here's James Conner (#40) being used as a situational pass rusher during his freshman year at Pitt.
(he also rushed for 229 yards this game) pic.twitter.com/vE6nobVxZL
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) June 27, 2020