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Combine is latest test for Pitt's Conner

| Thursday, March 2, 2017, 8:09 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Combine is a time for teams to take 15 minutes and interview prospective players, probing them with questions about their health, values and playing style.

Former Pitt running back James Conner has used the forum to turn the tables on scouts, coaches and executives.

If given the chance, Conner likes to be the one posing questions.

“I ask the coaches, ‘What do you guys want in a running back.' If they say, they want a toughness guy, that's a no-brainer. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none.

“I've been through so much, and I think I'm more determined than any running back in this class, and I'm just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.”

Suffice it to say, Conner has endured more than most college running backs trying to advance to the NFL, returning not only from a serious knee injury but coming back for the 2016 season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Conner said Thursday while speaking to reporters his scan last week from oncologist Stanley Marks came back clean. He brought the scan to the combine so NFL team doctors could make copies.

“I really haven't had much questions about the cancer besides the formal interviews when they ask me to explain a little bit more,” Conner said. “The medical process here has been evaluation — shoulders, knees, getting tugged on and stuff like that. Medical has been fine for me.”

Not all doctors, though, are aware of Conner's return from cancer and his inspirational journey that has received national attention and landed him an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show.

“When we do the head and neck test, and they ask me about the scar on my neck, and I just explain it to them,” Conner said. “I tell them that I had Hodgkin's lymphoma and that I'm clean. Simple questions like that.”

The only other medical issue for Conner since the end of the season was a concussion he suffered in the Pinstripe Bowl. He said he was cleared two days later.

Before the combine, Conner spent his time in California, working on drills to prepare him for the event. His agent, Ryan Tollner, also represents Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Conner worked out with Roethlisberger plus 2016 draft class quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Jared Goff.

Conner trimmed his weight from 245 pounds to 233, and he will run the 40-yard dash Friday after doing 20 repetitions in the bench press Thursday.

“At the weigh-in, he was cut up,” said guard Dorian Johnson, Conner's Pitt teammate. “It was impressive to me.”

Another former Pitt player, tackle Adam Bisnowaty, said any NFL coaches doubting Conner's ability and toughness should watch the videos from last winter of Conner practicing with the Panthers in the early-morning hours while wearing a surgical mask.

“That's not fake,” Bisnowaty said. “That's who he is. That's real. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it. … If he can come out here and go as hard as he can after going through chemotherapy the day before, I'm sure I can push myself just as hard.”

As he prepared for the questions he would face at the combine, Conner received some advice from Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 18.

“He said to be yourself,” Conner said. “People want to be a part of that. It's a great story to tell, and teams want to be a part of it.”

Conner realizes he can be a role model to athletes by the way he has conducted himself since he was diagnosed with cancer. But he doesn't think the NFL Combine is the proper venue to spread his inspirational message.

After all, he will be busy trying to impress NFL personnel with his on-field talents.

“Right now, I'm focused on playing football and the opportunity to make an NFL team,” he said. “Later down the line when I'm successful, we can talk about the platform I'm on, but right now I just have tunnel vision and am trying to make the most of this opportunity.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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