Ryan Switzer’s North Carolina Tar Heels had just wrapped up a perfect 8-0 season in conference play and were 24 hours away from taking on the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship game on Dec. 5, 2015.
But Switzer was in no mood to celebrate.
Earlier that day, he opened his Twitter feed to find out his good friend and ACC rival, Pitt running back James Conner, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He immediately reached for his phone.
“I had to let him know I was thinking about it,” Switzer said.
That little message shows the bond between the two gridiron warriors — bitter rivals on the field, but thoughtful friends off.
“[Switzer is] a phenomenal person,” Conner said. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Switzer has been a key part of the only Coastal Division team Pitt has yet to beat since joining the ACC in 2013 — North Carolina — and his blazing deep routes and winding punt returns might be the biggest reason why.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound slot receiver has burned the Panthers for four touchdowns of 60 yards or more over the span of three straight victories by the Tar Heels.
“The first thing you look at is Ryan Switzer, who can take a game over by himself,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said about game planning for UNC at his weekly media teleconference.
The two first met in their senior year of high school at a Rivals/VTO Camp in Pittsburgh. Conner was a defensive end out of McDowell High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Switzer was a multi-sport star from West Virginia.
When Conner first saw him play at this camp, he immediately recognized Switzer’s ability.
“[Switzer] was killing people, he was juicing them all over the field,” Conner said.
The two players briefly chatted, but nothing approaching a friendship occurred until Nov. 16, 2013 — when Pitt played North Carolina, the first time the two played each other.
Both true freshmen excelled in the contest at Heinz Field. Conner pounded the goal line for a two-yard touchdown run, one of 19 carries for 102 yards. And Switzer, in the end, stole the show.
UNC’s shifty first-year receiver had a breakout performance at Heinz Field, gashing Pitt’s special teams unit for a pair of punt return touchdowns of 65 and 61 yards, respectively. His second touchdown proved to be the game-winning score when the Tar Heels won, 34-27.
After the game, as Switzer was leaving the field, he saw Conner being interviewed by the media and recognized his face. He stopped to chat after the reporters left, and, despite their competitive nature, the two caught up and bonded over a common dream: making it to the NFL.
“Our relationship really got going [after that game],” Switzer said. “Our passion for [football] and our pursuit of the same goal [brought us together].”
The two exchanged numbers, connected on social media and kept in touch over the intervening years.
“We talk [on] social media, text message all the time,” Conner said.
While the rigors of a Division I football schedule make it difficult for face-to-face interactions, Switzer said the two tried to meet up over spring break in Florida last year, but both ended up being too busy.
As Switzer and Conner’s friendship grew, their careers grew as well.
After tying an NCAA record with five punt return touchdowns in his first year, Switzer started to improve as a receiver and become a more complete player in 2014. No longer just a dangerous returner, he made 61 receptions for 757 yards and four touchdowns.
Meanwhile, 2014 was Conner’s best year to date. He rushed for 1,765 yards as a true sophomore, and his 26 touchdowns set Pitt and ACC records.
Conner took his game to another level against Switzer and the Tar Heels in 2014, rumbling for 220 yards and four touchdowns. But Switzer caught a 63-yard touchdown pass and UNC won again, 40-35.
Even in this combative environment, both still see each other as friends.
“It’s a friendly competition,” Switzer said.
Conner wanted to even the competition in 2015, but a torn MCL in Pitt’s opening game against Youngstown State ended his season.
While Conner rehabbed his knee and prepared to make a comeback, Switzer continued to strike fear into opposing defenses and special teams units. He totaled 693 yards receiving and six touchdowns, adding two more scores on punt returns.
Fast-forward to the day before the ACC championship game –– the day of Conner’s diagnosis. Switzer felt he had to do something to show his support, so he wrote #ConnerStrong on the sides of his cleats for the game.
The overwhelming support Conner received from peers and opponents like Switzer helped drive him back to the field. Out of appreciation, Conner sent Switzer some wristbands with the words “Fear is a Choice” and the hashtag #ConnerStrong.
The Tar Heels star wears the wristbands every day, and he’ll keep it that way when the teams square off this Saturday.
“I’ll wear [the wristband] with me until it breaks, and then I put another one on,” Switzer said in a video posted on Twitter by ESPN reporter Andrea Adelson detailing his friendship with Conner.
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) September 8, 2016
Switzer sees Conner’s recovery as an example for anyone facing adversity to follow.
“The way he handled that situation, he seemed so strong, so positive with everything that was happening,” Switzer said in the video. “I kept thinking about what James was doing and how hard he was fighting, not just to be the best player he was but to continue to live.”
Despite rooting on Conner and the Panthers against Penn State, and planning to in every other game, their friendship will have to be put on hold this Saturday.
“I want to see him do well in every game but ours,” Switzer said.
And while Conner appreciates the continued support, he hasn’t lost sight of this game’s importance for both teams’ chances at a division title.
“I’ve never beaten North Carolina [in] my whole career here,” Conner said. “[Switzer is a] great person, great friend, but I want to win. We’re all coming for him.”