McDowell Mob making the trip to Heinz Field for Conner’s return


325 members of the McDowell High School student section will be making the trip to Heinz Field for Pitt's season opener. Courtesy of Crystal Myers.

By Dan Sostek / Senior Staff Writer

Last fall, sports nutrition teacher Crystal Myers and the McDowell Mob — the student fan section at McDowell High School, which she heads — had everything lined up.

For the second year in a row, students from the Erie, Pennsylvania, high school planned to trek to Heinz Field by the busload to support their former football star and current Panther dynamo, James Conner.

As they were getting ready to purchase their tickets, fate intervened.

Conner’s entire life was turned upside down — first by a torn MCL in the opening game of the year, which ended his season, and later by a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. As Conner later put it in a piece he penned for The Players’ Tribune, “I was invincible. And then, all of a sudden … I wasn’t.”

Myers and McDowell didn’t get to “Mob To Pitt” last year like they had during Conner’s incredible sophomore season, when hundreds of them saw him rush for 85 yards and deliver two touchdowns in a win against Virginia Tech October 2014. They called off their planned ticket order. Conner never saw the field after week one.

But this Saturday, both Conner and the Mob are making a return to Heinz Field. The high schoolers are coming in droves to see their hometown star take the field against Villanova, marking a monumental leap over all of the obstacles he faced throughout the past year.

“After everything that he has been through — getting hurt, getting the cancer diagnosis and then fighting back — there’s no way we’re not going,” said Myers, who’s also an internship coordinator at McDowell. “We’re going to organize it, we’re going to try to make it bigger.”

It is indeed bigger, as the number of tickets Myers sold sits at 325. That’s about triple the total they sold for the initial “Mob To Pitt” event in 2014. Myers booked two buses of about 90 students and the remainder will make the two-hour drive down to Pittsburgh’s North Shore for kickoff.

Conner, whom the Mob informed about the initiative when they bought the tickets, is ready to make his appearance.

“It’s really cool, especially with them being from my high school,” Conner said at a media availability Tuesday. “It’s good to have hometown support. I cherish that.”

Even though more people signed up, the challenges of organizing and distributing the tickets were much tougher this year, given the timing of the event. Selling tickets during school hours wouldn’t be possible for a game so early in September, as Myers had to place the order for the tickets by Aug. 19 to ensure all the seats were together.

“It was easier to advertise and sell during the school year [last time],” Myers said. “But we needed to be there for his comeback, for his home opener. I felt it was really important that we were there.”

The student section heavily utilized Twitter to make up for the lack of face-to-face promotion. Everyone pre-order tickets in order to get an estimate of demand and pick them up at the school. Myers charged the face value of $10 and offered a seat on bus transportation for an extra $15.

Among the biggest challenges was organizing where everyone was going to sit in section 520 at Heinz Field.

“When I was doing the seating chart, I felt like I was planning a wedding,” Myers said.

Members of McDowell’s “Gameday Crew,” such as senior Molly Grack, also helped Myers in terms of social media promotion and planning.

“I’m really amazed by the show out,” Grack said.

Myers noted that Conner is still a huge presence in the community, attending McDowell events whenever he comes home from Pitt. Recently, the running back attended a three-on-three youth basketball tournament, doling out high fives and autographs.

Mike Gallagher, a close family friend of Conner’s, says that hometown community is still vital to the Pitt running back. According to Gallagher, Conner tries to squeeze in as many visits back home as possible.

“He’s never lost his connection,” Gallagher said. “He comes home, spur of the moment, even if he only has a night off … It means everything to him.”

And even though most current McDowell students don’t know Conner personally, they are still thrilled to show up for him. His story continues to inspire the kids in the halls –– like Grack, whose brother Hayden is close friends with the running back.

Grack, who attended the first “Mob To Pitt,” expects this iteration to be much more emotional.

“He came back so quickly,” Grack said. “Everyone is shocked and amazed, and everyone just wants to be part of the comeback.”

Myers says the relationship between Conner and his high school is symbiotic. McDowell fed off his story, while the school provided him much-needed support.

“We immediately ordered bracelets for him, passed them out … we had a bulletin board up with newspaper articles [about Conner] … [and utilized] hashtags #FearIsAChoice [and] #ConnerStrong,” Myers said. “I think he always knew McDowell [has been] behind him. I think he felt our positive vibes.”

The Mob will be the largest single contingent of Conner’s friends at Heinz Field, but they won’t be the only support he has.

Included among all the fans anxiously awaiting his return in Heinz Field’s mustard yellow stands will be his brother in the Air Force, his mother, Gallagher and a whole team of doctors and nurses from the UPMC Cancer Center.

If Conner is nervous about running out of the tunnel and returning to the turf in front of all of his friends and family, he isn’t telling Gallagher.

“I asked him [if there is any pressure],” Gallagher said. “You know what he said? ‘No. Pressure is getting a call on Thanksgiving, telling you you have cancer. Playing in a football game with everybody you love in the stands? That’s no pressure.’”

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