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Conner's letter to NFL GMs: 'I'm more than guy who beat cancer'

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 11:48 a.m.
Former Pitt running back James Conner answers questions during the NFL Combine on Friday, March 2, 2017, in Indianapolis.
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Former Pitt running back James Conner answers questions during the NFL Combine on Friday, March 2, 2017, in Indianapolis.
Running back James Conner reaches back to make a catch during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Running back James Conner reaches back to make a catch during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Running back James Conner is timed in the three-cone drill during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Running back James Conner is timed in the three-cone drill during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi shares a moment with running back James Conner during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi shares a moment with running back James Conner during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Running back James Conner makes a one-handed catch during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Running back James Conner makes a one-handed catch during Pitt's pro day Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

James Conner is taking no chances.

With the three-day NFL Draft starting April 27, Conner wrote a letter to all the league's general managers that was posted on The Players Tribune on Thursday morning.

In it, he reveals he started last season at Pitt at only 60 percent strength after concluding 12 rounds of chemotherapy four months earlier. He scored two touchdowns in the opener against Villanova — one on the ground and one through the air.

He concludes the letter with this ambitious statement:

“I don't set little goals. I mean, I'm trying to be in the Hall of Fame one day. That's where I'm looking to take this. That's where my head's at. If that goal sounds overly ambitious, or like an unrealistic dream, just think about what I went through to get here.”

Conner's motivation for writing the letter is to convince NFL decision-makers he's more than a football player who beat cancer. He wants to be known, simply, as a football player who can help an NFL team.

“My sophomore year at Pitt, I scored 26 touchdowns and was named ACC Player of the Year. But it's more likely that you know me for one very specific thing.

“Cancer.

“It's cool. That's totally reasonable. I've come to realize that being a cancer survivor is something I'll never get away from. It's part of my story, no doubt.”

But, he insists, “I am more than the guy who beat cancer.”

Conner tells much of the story of his football life, from being a largely ignored, two-star defensive end recruit from Erie McDowell High School to his four years at Pitt.

“I'm not positive, but I don't think they go any lower than that,” he said of the star ranking. “I don't know of any one-star guys.”

The summer after his junior year of high school, he read about a Pitt camp that had a $50 entry fee. The only problem: “I didn't have 50 bucks.”

Reluctantly, he went to his mother for the money.

“My mom was working real hard at the time to pay our bills, and I knew it would be tough,” he said. “Eventually, I told her that I wanted to play college football more than anything in the world, and that all I needed was one shot to show those coaches what I could do.”

Finally, after a bit of convincing, Conner's mom, Kelly Patterson, spotted him the money.

The camp was June 6, 2012, and Conner said then-Pitt coach Paul Chryst offered him a scholarship “on the spot.”

“Full ride. No questions asked.”

Of course, Chryst moved Conner to running back for the '13 season, out of necessity as much as any other reason.

“My response when they asked me to switch from defensive end to running back was the same as it's always been when I'm called on to do something to help my team win,” he said.

“Whatever, you need me to do, coach, I'm in.”

Conner reminded general managers that he was working out with his Pitt teammates last spring with a mask over his mouth and port embedded in his chest. During chemo, he said his weight increased to 260 with a loss of muscle mass.

Then, when the season started, he said his physical readiness was “60 percent. If that.”

“For most people who get 12 rounds of chemotherapy, it takes about six to eight months to recover — layin' low, no lifting, just trying to gain back strength.”

When the season started, he said, “I'd be tired just running out the tunnel. Those first couple of games really took their toll on me.”

He said he didn't feel normal until the fifth game, but by the time of the Clemson game Nov. 12, “I was hype.”

He proved it by colliding with Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware and splitting his face mask. At that point, he said he was “all the way back.”

At the moment, Conner said he is “100 percent healthy.”

“I have a clean scan showing I'm still cancer free. The knee injury I suffered a few years ago is fully healed, and I played the whole season on it without any pain. I don't even think about it anymore. My endurance is all the way back, too. I feel good.”

He said he when he started training for the NFL Combine in January, his body fat was 18 percent.

“I'm down to around 7 percent now,” he said.

Conner made this final pitch:

“I'm quicker than I've ever been — just lighter on my feet. But, you know, I'm still big. Believe me. No one's ever gonna be psyched about having to tackle me, bet that.

“If you're looking for a tough, hard-nosed back who wears down defenses, I'm your man.”

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said on a conference call Tuesday he believes Conner is underrated.

“He is a really good football player,” McShay said. “He has a chance to go late 3rd (round) early 4th and he'll be ready to contribute right away.”

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