Pitt's Conner is hard runner with a soft side

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 10:03 p.m.

Anyone who has watched the sun set over Lake Erie can attest to its beauty.

Two years ago, 15-year-old Meghan Gallagher couldn't see it from her hospital room at UPMC Hamot, where she spent three weeks getting treatment for a kidney ailment.

And that bothered her friend, James Conner.

During one of his regular after-school visits, Conner decided to do something about it. He knew how much Meghan loved going to the beach and watching the sun set with her father Michael. So he picked Meghan out of a hospital bed, cradled her in his massive arms and set her down in front of a window.

“The sunset relaxed her mind,” Conner said.

That's one side of Pitt's rising sophomore running back. Here's another:

Pity poor Terrish Webb. He was just doing his job at a recent spring practice, rushing up from his safety position to play the run. Here comes Conner carrying the football, not especially concerned with anyone who might get in his way.

Conner collided with Webb, who is about 80 pounds lighter, and kept going. Webb got up slowly but was unhurt.

“It was an accident,” said Conner, a bit sheepishly.

Later, Pitt running backs coach John Settle told Conner, “Kids shouldn't play in traffic.”

Both stories speak to the maturity and power Pitt plans to put on display in its backfield this season. Conner, who is 6-foot-2, 248 pounds but still only 18 years old, will be the focal point of the Panthers' running game.

But Michael Gallagher, whose son Sean was Conner's quarterback at Erie McDowell High School, remembers him as “this little chubby kid,” who used to playfully wrestle with kids on the front lawn.

“Then I woke up one day, and his feet were hanging over the bed,” Gallagher said. “And it was like the movie, ‘Big.'

“I said, ‘What did God create here?' ''

Conner is the youngest of five brothers, including the oldest Glen, 25, who used to be a cage fighter; Richard, 23; Michael, 22; and Rico, 19.

When you see Conner look to the sky and salute after scoring a touchdown, it's meant for Michael, who is stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, near Valparaiso, Fla.

Conner is proud of how his mother, Kelly Bibbs, raised her boys, and one day, he hopes to give something back.

“She made a lot of sacrifices for us,” Conner said. “I just want to make it so one day she doesn't have to work anymore.”

Some day, the NFL may call on Conner. For now, he's the “always-polite” kid who was so afraid when he thought he lost his MVP trophy from the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl that he asked Gallagher to phone Pitt assistant athletic director E.J. Borghetti to confess for him. As it turned out, a member of the Pitt equipment crew picked up the trophy for safekeeping while Conner was showering. It sits in Kelly Bibbs' home in Erie.

Also, the No. 40 jersey he wore in the game will soon hang in his father Glen's restaurant, Conner said. Conner worked on both sides of the ball in that Pitt victory, playing running back and defensive end while fighting exhaustion and cramps on both sides of his stomach.

“I basically did it for the seniors,” he said. “I wanted to send them out the right way.”

Conner has become something of a celebrity in his hometown after leading Pitt in rushing yards (799) and TDs (eight) as a freshman last season.

When he was scheduled to speak at a sports banquet in Erie this past winter, he asked Gallagher, whom he calls “Pops”, to write a brief speech. When Conner found out Notre Dame legend Paul Hornung was in attendance, he deleted the part about him scoring two touchdowns against the Irish.

“I don't like to seem too cocky,” he said.

Conner also recently spoke at the Gift of Life Gala for the National Kidney Foundation at Heinz Field. He did so at the request of Gallagher, who also suffers from kidney disease.

“I don't like (speaking to crowds), but I did it because Mr. Gallagher asked me,” he said. “My voice starts cracking, I get sweaty and my face turns red.”

Not unlike how some defensive backs must feel when they try to tackle him.

“Late in the (Pizza Bowl), they were just trying to push me out of bounds, instead of coming up and wrapping up,” he said. “I could tell they were getting tired.”

Asked to describe his playing style, Conner said: “Fearless, relentless. Those words, I believe, fit me. Just having a strong will.”

He gets it from his brothers, he said. “Every day, after I'd come home from school, we were wrestling. “They made me who I am today. I'm tough because of them.”

Yet, Conner's soft side often emerges. He came straight from McDowell football practice on many days to visit Meghan Gallagher in the hospital. “To get her to think about life and get her to stay strong when she was going through hard times,” he said.

When another of Conner's friends, Alyssa Josephine O'Neill, died last year after suffering an epileptic seizure, Conner helped carry the casket at her funeral. He wrote the initials A.J.O. on his wristband and dedicated his two touchdowns against New Mexico to her.

He isn't afraid to say: “I like to be a good-hearted person and give back.”

On the field, Conner has set goals for his team and himself.

“(The NFL) is on my mind every day,” he said. “Honestly, I'm a Pitt Panther right now and I want to get a 10-win season, and go to a great bowl game. Hopefully, we can do both.

“But when this over, I don't want this to be the last step. There is still another step to take after this.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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