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Pitt star Conner befriends ailing Erie boy

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, June 17, 2015, 10:09 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner and 6-year-old Roman Pfister of Erie hold cakes to celebrate Conner's birthday May 5, 2015, at Grandview Elementary School in Erie. Pfister has undergone three open-heart surgeries, and he and Conner have forged a bond.
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Pitt running back James Conner and 6-year-old Roman Pfister of Erie hold cakes to celebrate Conner's birthday May 5, 2015, at Grandview Elementary School in Erie. Pfister has undergone three open-heart surgeries, and he and Conner have forged a bond.

The pain racing through James Conner's hip was so intense he was forced to do the unthinkable:

He sat out the second half of last year's Pitt/Syracuse game.

But before going to the sideline to watch the remainder of Pitt's 30-7 victory, the star running back turned his attention to a 6-year-old boy to whom he had made a promise.

Before the game, Conner told Roman Pfister, who was recovering from his third open heart surgery, that he would score a touchdown for him.

Conner — like Roman, a resident of Erie — did score, tying Tony Dorsett's all-time Pitt record. Then, after getting hurt, he sent an autographed football and his game-worn gloves to the Heinz Field box where Roman was watching the game with two of Conner's injured teammates, Artie Rowell and Adam Bisnowaty.

“He wanted Roman to know these are special hands for securing the football,” Roman's mother Tiffani Wasiela said. “He wanted him to know that he cared about him. Roman went home and fell asleep with those gloves on, holding that football.”

Conner, the reigning ACC Player of the Year, connected with Roman through another Erie resident, Andy Tamlin. A Pitt graduate, Tamlin became aware of Roman's condition through the nonprofit organization Grady's Decision that helps families of young children who are experiencing medical challenges.

When Conner was told Roman wanted to meet him, arrangements were made for him to attend the Syracuse game.

While warming up before the game, Conner spotted Roman on the sideline, left a huddle, trotted to the sideline and gave him a hug.

“He was just full of smiles,” Conner said. “The young kids, they look up to me more than an adult would.”

That wasn't the end of their relationship. On Conner's 20th birthday last month, he paid a surprise visit to Roman's school, Grandview Elementary in Erie.

“James and my son were sitting way in the back of the room, just pow-wowing,” Wasiela said. “They were best friends the whole time.”

Wasiela, who owns a pastry shop in Erie, baked a cake for the occasion. Conner declined, sticking to his offseason diet that has helped him lose about 15 pounds to 235.

“I was very thankful for it,” Conner said, “but I didn't have any.”

Said Wasiela: “When he is ready to eat some cake, we are going to get him some cake.”

Conner said he wants Roman to be his guest at each home game this season. “To take his mind off things,” Conner said.

Before that, Roman needs another operation.

He's already had three on his heart — at the ages of 1 week, 2 years and 5 years. Surgery is planned later this summer to remove a dermoid cyst that has surfaced on the back of his head, due to a genetic bone disorder, Klippel-Feil syndrome, that shows up in only one in 42,000 newborns.

“He beat all the odds and exceeded all the expectations,” Wasiela said. “Surgeons are very, very confident they can get this done, no problem, and he'll be able to go to the Pitt game (Sept. 5).

“We'll be there with bells on.”

But because of his condition, Roman never will be able to do what he wants to do — play football.

“He can throw a football farther than I can throw it, and he's 6 years old,” his mother said. “It broke my heart when he asked me to play.

“But James Conner made a dream come true for my son.”

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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