2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: James Conner, Pittsburgh

Each of the finalists for the 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page.

conner-action-2JAMES CONNER

University: University of Pittsburgh

Vitals: 6-2, 235-pound running back

Quick Hits: A star on both sides of the ball as a running back and pass rusher coming out of high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, Conner was recognized as an All-State running back his senior year. … Rushed for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2013. … Became a big-time star for the Panthers in 2014 by rushing for nearly 1,800 yards with 26 touchdowns to earn ACC Player of the Year award and was on several All-America teams. … Suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the 2015 opener. … Diagnosed with a rare disease less than three months after injuring his knee. … Returned for the 2015 season four months after his final chemotherapy treatment to rush for more than 1,000 yards and was a first-team All-ACC selection. … Selected a captain for the 2015 Panthers. … Awarded the inaugural James Conner Courage Award by Stanley M. Marks, MD, who was Conner’s oncologist and serves as the chairman of the UPMC CancerCenter. … Winner of the Disney Spirit Award. … An administration of justice major who recently declared for the NFL.


Very few can understand the work ethic and grind it took for James Conner to play football for the Panthers in 2016.

And the long odds he overcame to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a team captain. His journey to step on the field this past September was inspirational and uplifting to others.

But what you almost forget is Conner was not only battling the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was also trying to recover from a major knee injury that cost him the 2015 season.

Yet through it all, Conner never stop thinking of others or looking for ways to help and inspire others. The fabric of James Conner the person was on display for all to see.

People from his hometown were sending him support letters, there was the hashtag #ConnerStrong on Twitter, other cancer patients were opening up and sharing their stories with Conner.

But it was still a struggle, as you would expect, during his 12-rounds of chemotherapy treatment. The star running back who felt invincible on the football field, in an flash realized he wasn’t.

His knee injury that started him down a path that would create a whole new prism of life was unexpected.  He didn’t feel like the injury was that bad. Conner, who admits he’s emotional and has no problem crying, was distraught and crushed.

Three months later a knee injury seemed like a scratch when doctors told him he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Conner admits deep down he was nervous, worried and scared. But his teammates, friends and doctors gave him the confidence to believe in himself and remember he was the guy who became the ACC Player of the Year two years after only one Power-5 school, Pitt, offered him a scholarship.


After losing his 2015 season to a serious knee injury, Conner had his surgery behind him and was on the road to full recovery in preparation for the upcoming 2016 season.

For a couple months, though, Conner had been battling bloating and swelling in his head, fatigue and night sweats. Doctors thought it was the flu, strep throat or maybe even pneumonia. But becoming a “regular” at the pharmacy with no results, Conner had a chest X-ray.

The results indicated there was something in the chest area so he was immediately scheduled for a PET scan. And on Thanksgiving Day of 2015 the doctors called and said it might be lymphoma.

After an agonizing four-day wait, Conner had a biopsy and was told he did indeed have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Instead of training for the 2016 season, Conner was staring a dozen chemotherapy treatments in the face. Football wasn’t going to take a back seat, though.

Conner continued to train at the level his body would allow. He practiced during spring drills with a mask and was not permitted contact because his chemo port was still in his chest.

If he was given a cancer-free diagnosis, Conner wanted to be ready. His final chemotherapy treatment was in early May 2016, but he didn’t celebrate. He waited two full weeks until his PET scan before celebrating because he remembered his doctor telling him nothing was guaranteed.

Conner was thrilled when given a clean bill of health, but over time he realized, most importantly, that he was given the opportunity to repay the kindness people showed him for the rest of his life.


 “There are people out there fighting and they don’t get to receive any awards if they win. Someday I look forward to starting my own cancer charity to help children fighting this disease. That may seem like something that’s easy to say, but I’m going to do it. You can count on that. It just wasn’t the famous people and athletes who reached out and showed me love. It was everyone. And I can’t wait to do that for people the rest of my life. Because even before I played football again this season my battle was already won. Beating cancer … everything else was a reward.” – Former Pitt running back James Conner

Duke v Pittsburgh 


2 thoughts on “2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: James Conner, Pittsburgh

  1. Pingback: Public online voting to determine 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion opens up | Uplifting Athletes

  2. Pingback: Voting to determine 2017 Rare Disease Champion hits the stretch run | Uplifting Athletes

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