Conner wanted to play running back for the McDowell High School Trojans (Erie, Pa.), but he wasn’t good enough to start.
As Conner recently told Heavy.com: “When I was a junior in high school we had an All-American running back on our team and I didn’t get to play that much.” (Conner is referring to Greg Garmon, who beat cancer at age 14 and went on to become a four-star recruit with offers from upwards of twenty Division I programs.)
Knowing that he needed playing time to have any chance of getting a college scholarship, Conner took the advice of one of his brothers and abruptly switched to the defensive side of the ball.
At first, Conner’s transition to defense was … awkward.
‘Like a Panther Ready to Pounce’
As Conner notes in his new memoir Fear is a Choice: “Chris Spooner, my defensive line coach, told me later that when he watched me get down in my position, he was completely confounded—it looked nothing like a normal defensive stance. I was low to the ground, nearly lying on my stomach, my legs stretched out behind me. It was ridiculous, frankly, but I had no clue what I was doing,” he admits.
Coach Spooner told the Trojans’ head coach that Conner looked ‘like a panther ready to pounce,’ an apropos description considering what was to come.
Conner was relentless enough in pursuit to amass 12 sacks in five-and-a-half games, and between his junior and senior year in high school he was invited to a football camp sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh. It was there that Conner “sacked player after player,” as he puts it, which soon led to a scholarship offer from the Pitt Panthers.
It was only after Conner’s senior year in high school—after he had rushed for 1,680 yards—that Pitt switched him to running back, the position he plays in the NFL.
Conner Played on the Defensive Line with Aaron Donald at Pitt
But the Pitt Panthers coaching staff didn’t totally forget about Conner’s pass rushing abilities. When Conner was a freshman at Pitt—the same year Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald was a senior—Conner was employed as a situational pass rusher.
In fact, in Pitt’s final game of the 2013 season—the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green, in which Conner rushed for 229 yards, breaking the University of Pittsburgh’s bowl game record—the coaches sent him out in the final minute to rush the passer from the right defensive end position, hoping Conner might help close out a tightly contested game.
In Fear is a Choice, Conner reveals that Pitt’s coaches might have used him more on defense in that game, but Donald said, “No, James you need to keep running the ball.”
“Given the difference in our ages, he and I really didn’t interact that much [until the Little Caesars Bowl],” writes Conner in the book. But being that Donald was “the kind of guy we all wanted to be—ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American, and a first-round draft prospect,” Conner was giddy that Donald took note of his contributions that day.
“He noticed me…! Donald noticed me and advocated for me,” Conner gushes in the book.
In the end, Conner and Donald end up rushing the passer together. In the video clip below, you see Conner bull-rushing Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson and drawing a holding penalty.
Then on the next play—which effectively sealed the 30-27 victory for the Panthers—you see Conner having the proverbial meeting at the quarterback with Donald.
Four-and-a-half months after the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Donald would become the first-round pick of the Rams in the 2014 NFL Draft (#13 overall). He has since become one of the very best players in the NFL.
Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the fall of 2015, but he underwent chemotherapy and announced he was cancer-free in May 2016. He was drafted into the NFL by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
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