James Conner honored for community service


Even with the injury, Conner continued to be active in the community, here surrounded by members of the Shadyside chapter of the Boys and Girls Club after receiving an award for his service in September of 2015. Anh Vu | Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

Pitt junior running back James Conner arrived at the Shadyside chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania Tuesday afternoon prepared to dole out advice to children — but to his surprise, Conner received a gift of his own.

Conner was officially named a member of the 2015 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team Tuesday morning. The award, established in 1992, recognizes 22 college football players annually  who demonstrate dedication and commitment to serving the community.

After receiving nominations from sports information directors across the country, a voting panel of former Good Works Team members and college football media members select the honorees. The running back was one of an all-time high 197 nominations this year.

While Conner was aware that the panel chose him as a recipient of the award, he was under the impression that he was attending the club solely to speak to its members. When he arrived at the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium to a packed house of rambunctious kids, local Allstate agency owner Dana Richter surprised Conner, presenting him with the award.

“It was cool, seeing the young kids get loud and getting that trophy,” Conner said. “Today was a good day.”

Conner is the third Panther to receive the award, with  quarterbacks Tyler Palko (2006) and Alex Van Pelt (1992) being the other two recipients. He is one of three ACC players on the 2015 Good Worksteam, as Duke linebacker Kelby Brown and Miami safety Deon Bush all joined Conner on the team.

According to a press release from the award sponsors, Conner regularly volunteers at the National Kidney Foundation amd visits the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. He also helped assemble Ebola caregiver kits for front-line health care workers in Africa and coordinated activities at the Mel Blount Youth Home for boys who are victims of childhood abuse and neglect.

Conner, who is sidelined for the 2015-2016 season with a torn MCL, said he values all of his volunteer work.

“It’s very important,” Conner said. “Every student-athlete should [do volunteer work]. I like to give back in some kind of way.”

He also quickly redirected credit to E.J. Borghetti, Pitt’s executive associate athletic director for media relations, acknowledging how much assistance the longtime Pitt athletic department employee provides for Conner.

“E.J. gets all the credit,” Conner said. “He lets me get my own schedule and lets me know if anything inconveniences me. But it doesn’t. He’s the man. He works everything out for me.”

The event began with former Pitt cornerback Shawn Robinson, the founder of Orange Arrow — a non-profit dedicated to coaching student athletes to aim for success off the field.

Robinson introduced Pitt Assistant Athletic Director Chris LaSala, who brought out Conner and teammate Jaryd Jones-Smith — who will also miss the entire season due to a torn MCL — before turning over the microphone to Richter, who highlighted the running back’s exemplary qualifications.

“Not only does [James] have to be a great football player like he is,” Richter explained to the audience, “But he has to excel in the classroom, and he likes to do volunteer work like he does with you guys.”

After the presentation of the award, Conner, standing with crutches as support, gave a short speech about adversity to the Boys and Girls Club members, while also encouraging onlookers to focus on schoolwork and stay dedicated to their dreams.

“When I was your age, I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to play in the National Football League,” Conner told the crowd. “And I’m still chasing that dream. But like I said, adversity happens. I’m actually dealing with a knee injury right now. But I’m gonna keep the faith and overcome that.”

In a release, Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi and Athletic Director Scott Barnes both lauded Conner’s efforts off the field.

“I knew James Conner was a great running back when I arrived at Pitt,” Narduzzi said. “During the past nine months, I’ve also learned what a great young man he is. We are incredibly proud that he has been named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which truly represents the very best of college football.”

In the release, Barnes expressed that this achievement is the star running back’s most significant to date.

“James Conner has received many honors during his Pitt career, but being named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team is certainly the most special,” Barnes said. “His dedication to making a difference in the lives of others is truly inspiring. We are extremely proud that he is a Panther.”

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