In the fall of 2015, running back James Conner was struggling to recover from a torn MCL suffered in the Pitt Panthers’ season opener against Youngstown State. But it wasn’t his knee that was giving him trouble.
“I couldn’t sleep at night and was having night sweats,” Conner told Heavy.com. “I was trying to work out but I couldn’t really do it as I would get short of breath.”
Conner visited a series of doctors in an attempt to discern what was wrong, but none could provide an answer until he visited an ear, nose, and throat specialist who recommended a chest x-ray. “Just in case,” Conner recalls her saying.
The chest x-ray revealed suspicious masses in Conner’s chest, and after a series of blood tests and a biopsy he found himself shifting nervously in his doctor’s office with his mother at his side. Conner’s physician pulled up a file on his computer monitor and began explaining the procedure the pathologists had used in examining the biopsy results. That’s when Conner’s eyes gravitated to the last line on the computer screen: “Symptoms compatible with lymphoma.”
James Conner’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Diagnosis Left Him ‘Shocked and Confused’
The diagnosis left Conner in a state of disbelief, and more than a little “confused,” as he puts it.
“I didn’t have much of an idea [about cancer],” he told Heavy.com. “I don’t have a long family history of it 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 was planning for a career in the NFL and never imagined that his dream would get sidetracked by cancer.
“You hear about people having it but you never think it can happen to you until it does, so I was shocked and confused about how I got it. Did I breathe something in? Did I eat something wrong? I had all these questions in my head….”
James Conner’s Emotional Support System at the University of Pittsburgh
Some of Conner’s questions got answered by his oncologist, but Conner was also lucky to have a great emotional support system at Pitt. That included Rob Blanc, the head football athletic trainer, who was there for Conner’s biopsy, there when he went to his diagnostic appointments, and there when he received his cancer diagnosis.
He also had the support of interim strength-and-conditioning coach Kenechi Udeze, a former first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings, whose NFL career had come to an end after he was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Finally, he had a head coach, Pat Narduzzi, whose father had died from lymphoma, and knew the challenges that Conner would face going forward.
Conner and Narduzzi made a plan for Conner to reveal his diagnosis to teammates, prefaced by a video about Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro safety Eric Berry, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease but recovered and resumed his NFL career. A few hours later Conner held a press conference to reveal his cancer diagnosis to the general public, and shortly afterwards he got a phone call from none other than Berry himself.
Eric Berry, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Survivor, Guided Conner’s Recovery
As Conner reveals in his new memoir, Fear is a Choice: Tackling Life’s Challenges with Dignity, Faith, and Determination:
“[Berry] had heard about my diagnosis—someone actually slipped him a note during a team meeting to tell him a college player had just been diagnosed with the same cancer—and right away Eric contacted the University of Pittsburgh to see if he could get in touch with me…. We talked for more than a half an hour that first day, discussing everything from symptoms and diagnoses to tips for training while undergoing treatments. I hung up the phone with a brand-new sense of empowerment. Someone else who had walked this same road reached back to coach me through it.
Looking back on it today, Conner says Berry’s advice and support was invaluable, and that he gained a lot of confidence knowing that Berry had beaten Hodgkin’s disease and had come back to thrive in the NFL.
“He set the tone for me,” Conner told Heavy.com. “He called me after my first chemotherapy treatment and said, ‘round one, champ.’ I remember him saying that. He would say ‘one round at a time’ and he would tell me ‘you got this’ and whatnot. He really kept me going.”
Berry also offered helpful tips for working out while undergoing chemotherapy.
“The biggest challenge was the weakness and loss of strength—the loss of conditioning you have—because chemo really takes a toll on you,” Conner said. “[It was tough] knowing that I used to be able to run up and down the field all day and now I would run up and down just a couple times and be gassed.”
But with Berry’s guidance, Conner completed chemotherapy in early May 2016 and was deemed to be cancer-free on May 23, 2016, hence Conner’s recent anniversary celebration of four years cancer-free.
Conner would go on to return to the football field against Villanova in September 2016 and be drafted into the NFL by the Pittsburgh Steelers in April 2017.
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