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James Conner receives Disney Sports Spirit Award

Pitt running back James Conner tallied 160 total yards and three touchdowns in Pitt's 76-61 win over Syracuse. Jordan Mondell | Asst. Visual Editor

Pitt running back James Conner tallied 160 total yards and three touchdowns in Pitt's 76-61 win over Syracuse. Jordan Mondell | Asst. Visual Editor

Pitt running back James Conner tallied 160 total yards and three touchdowns in Pitt's 76-61 win over Syracuse. Jordan Mondell | Asst. Visual Editor

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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Disney Sports recognized Pitt running back James Conner for his remarkable comeback season by naming him the recipient of the 2016 Disney Sports Spirit Award Monday afternoon.

The award — which Disney Sports Vice President Faron Kelley will present to Conner at The Home Depot College Football Awards show on Dec. 8 — is annually presented to college football’s most inspirational figure.

“I am incredibly humbled by this recognition, especially when I see the unbelievable list of people who are past recipients of the Disney Sports Spirit Award,” Conner said in a press release.

Past recipients of the Disney Sports Spirit include Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and wide receiver Sterling Shepard in 2014, and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in 2008.

Conner becomes the 21st recipient of the award after recovering from both a torn MCL he suffered in the Panthers’ season-opening game against Youngstown State last season as well as Hodgkin lymphoma, which doctors diagnosed him with less than a year ago on Thanksgiving Day.

“A year ago at this time, I was just beginning my battle against cancer. Being able to stand here today, cancer-free, and accept this honor is a blessing beyond words,” Conner said in the release. “I’ve been fortunate to have so many wonderful people — Dr. Stanley Marks, Coach [Pat] Narduzzi, my teammates and countless others — support me every step of the way.”

After receiving the Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis, Conner continued to train and practice with the team while wearing a surgical mask over his face to prevent infection. During an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” DeGeneres appeared shocked at the intensity of his workouts and asked how and why he was doing it.

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

Despite having to endure draining chemotherapy treatments every two weeks for six months straight, Conner never wavered in his goal of being ready for the team’s season opener versus Villanova Sept. 3. Sure enough, Conner received a call from Marks May 24 letting him know that he was officially cancer-free, putting him on track to reach that goal.

Conner started in the season opener against Villanova, rushing for 53 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. He didn’t quite look back to All-American form.

After knocking the rust off in Week 1, he has more closely resembled the 2014 ACC Player of the Year in 10 games since.

Starting with a 117-yard, two-touchdown outburst in a 42-39 win over Penn State in Week 2, all the way to last Saturday’s 101-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 56-14 win over Duke, Conner has re-established himself as one of the best tailbacks in the country.

Conner now has 945 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns to go along with 254 receiving yards and three additional scores through the air in 2016. His downhill running style and devastating stiff arm have returned in full force, highlighted by his 20-yard touchdown run late in Pitt’s stunning 43-42 win over Clemson Nov. 12.

“He’s a beast,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said after his 141-yard, three-touchdown performance against Virginia Tech Oct. 27. “I wish we would have given the ball to him 15 more times.”

With 1,199 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns in his first 11 games back since beating cancer — and that torn MCL — the Disney Sports Spirit Award isn’t the only hardware for which Conner is in contention. Fox Sports analyst Bruce Feldman listed Conner as one of the top five candidates for the 2016 Heisman Trophy in his most recent rankings.

All those numbers and awards notwithstanding, Conner is quick to point out that he is lucky to even be alive, let alone playing football at an elite level. He finished his statement by repeating the same four words he said when he announced he had cancer: Fear is a choice.

“To those who are fighting their own personal battle, I want them to always remember that fear is a choice,” Conner said in the release. “You don’t have to fear cancer. I defeated it, and I know you can too.”

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James Conner receives Disney Sports Spirit Award