Conner Stronger: Running back beats cancer


James Conner greets the crowd at the Blue/Gold game. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Six months ago, Stanley Marks received a call from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Western Pennsylvania about inviting a star guest speaker to its annual Light the Night Walk kickoff breakfast.

The speaker the society wanted to bring in to speak at the Duquesne Club on May 24 was one of Marks’ patients — Pitt redshirt junior running back James Conner, who had just been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Understandably, Marks was as cautious as possible.

“There’s no way I can predict how he’s going to be doing, how he’s going to be feeling, if he’s going to be in remission, so let’s just put it on hold and assume he’s not going to be there because the timeline is too tight,” Marks told the society.

If you know anything about Conner, you probably correctly assumed he showed up.

Almost six months to the day on Monday, May 23, at about 1:45 p.m., Conner went into the Hillman Cancer Center for a scan to see if he was cancer free. Marks said a text message appeared on his phone before he even had a chance to analyze the results.

“How’s my scan look?” the text from Conner said.

“Can you give me a few minutes?” Marks joked.

All the workers at the Hillman Cancer Center — including the nurses, the valet out front and the greeters inside — were holding their breath and asking Marks the same question. Less than 20 minutes later, Conner’s phone rang.

“James, everything looks normal,” Marks told him.

James Conner and Dr. Stanley Marks | Photo by Steve Rotstein
James Conner and Dr. Stanley Marks | Photo by Steve Rotstein

Conner shared an embrace with his family, his friends and his mother, who he said is probably still crying tears of joy. But Marks didn’t let him off the phone.

“Alright, now that I gave you good news, I need a favor,” Marks told Conner. “Tomorrow morning at 7:30, I need you at the Duquesne Club. Can you be there?”

“Anything for you, doc,” Conner replied.

Just one day after getting the news he was cleared of cancer, Conner spoke in front of roughly 200 guests at the kickoff event for the October 13 Light the Night Walk at Heinz Field to raise money for cancer research.

“He had some very short but certainly emotional and inspirational comments for the audience,” Marks said. “It was great to have him here.”

Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi reiterated the tremendous impact Conner has had off the field since being diagnosed.

“Over the past six months, James Conner fought cancer the same way he plays football: relentlessly and without surrender,” Narduzzi said in a statement Monday. “Everyone at Pitt feels blessed to know him and we are tremendously thankful for the wonderful news he received today.”

Long before his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, Conner volunteered at the National Kidney Foundation, the Mel Blount Youth Home and various children’s hospitals in Pittsburgh.

But when he received word that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he chose not to step out of the public eye. Another no-brainer for anyone who knows the now-famous football player, Marks said.

“When he first started chemotherapy, I offered him the option of having some privacy and being in an area of the Lemieux [Center] that would keep him from having much contact with the other patients,” Marks said.

“No, no, no, no. I want to be with the other patients,” Conner insisted.

Conner went into the Lemieux Center twice a week for 12 weeks and took part in three- to four-hour treatment sessions in the same wing of the center as all the other patients.

“It was really beautiful to see what he had created there at the Lemieux. The days that he came in there was just a lot more excitement and chatter,” Marks said. “He really served as an inspiration to a lot of patients, those that were doing well and those that weren’t.”

One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy treatment is fatigue, Marks noted.

But just over two months after his diagnosis, Pitt defensive lineman Khaynin Mosley-Smith tweeted a video of Conner sprinting on a treadmill while wearing a protective mask over his mouth.

He was also seen at practice running through drills wearing the mask.

During an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, DeGeneres was as shocked as anyone at the intensity of Conner’s training while undergoing such draining chemotherapy treatments.

“It looks like you’re full on practicing … how are you doing that?” DeGeneres asked.

“We have a game September 3,” Conner said. “I owe it to my teammates and the whole city of Pittsburgh to be ready.”

Now, after months of promising that he would be back on the field, Conner is officially on track to meet his goal and return to Heinz for the season opener against the Villanova Wildcats.

It’s great news for Pitt fans, football fans and the entire Pittsburgh community. The same can’t be said for would-be tacklers across the ACC faced with bringing down an already talented player, now rejuvenated.