The first time you pee after receiving chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it’s red.
Not just kind of red, or pinkish, I’m talking briiiiiiight red.
It’s the chemo medication leaving your body.
The doctors don’t tell you about it. But, yeah, you’re peeing, and you look down, and boom — you see red.
They really should warn you about that, because it’s weird. But if I had to rank the things that they should tell you about before you go in for your first Hodgkin’s chemo session, the red pee thing would be pretty far down the list. Number one on that list would be this: They should tell you about the wall.
Because you will hit a wall.
For me it was treatment six.
I mean, no chemo sessions are fun — they last nearly the entire day, and they make you throw up. They’re never something you’d enjoy.
But treatment six — the halfway point of a 12-session course of treatments — that’s when things really got tough.
I’m not going to say that I wanted to die right before receiving treatment six, because I wasn’t ready to leave this earth. But I definitely remember sitting in that green leather hospital chair, waiting for the nurse to mix up the chemo batch, and thinking, I do not want to be here right now.
I wanted to get away, away from … everything.
And I just kind of went numb — my entire body, numb.
It was a sensation like no other I’ve ever experienced.
I didn’t have any feeling or emotions. I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep and not wake up for … a while. I didn’t want to die, but…
I just wanted to shut my eyes and drift away. To somewhere else — somewhere that didn’t include hospital gowns and masked nurses dressed in all blue, and giant needles being plunged into a circular plastic port implanted in my chest.
During the 11 weeks between being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s and receiving treatment six, everything about my life, my identity and my future had been transformed. And sitting there, in that stupid chair, with four inches of plastic tubing hanging from my chest, waiting for some bags of liquid to arrive so their contents could be injected into me, I not only couldn’t feel my body, but I also couldn’t recognize myself.
I was tired and … weak.
My body was resting in that chair, sure. But I couldn’t believe that the person sitting there was really me. It couldn’t be.
I’m six-foot-two, 250 pounds. The James Conner I had worked so hard to build myself into, the guy I saw when I looked in the mirror before being diagnosed, was … strong.
I didn’t want to die, but… I just wanted to shut my eyes and drift away.
As a running back for the University of Pittsburgh during the 2013 and ’14 seasons (plus one game in ’15), I had scored 36 touchdowns and rushed for 2,641 yards. But, in all honesty, I was probably better known for running people over — either that or for stiff-arming would-be tacklers to the ground. Trying to bring me down was like trying to tackle a linebacker, and when I was locked in, no one was going to tackle me.
If I saw a defender in my way, I was lowering my shoulder, and it was not gonna be fun for the other guy. Sometimes I would just look at defenders like, Come on … you literally have no chance of tackling me.
I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element.
But that was before treatment six. Treatment six was no joke.
Treatment six didn’t just stop me in my tracks, it took me down for a loss.
And I’m not someone who’s used to taking losses.
Ever since the end of my freshman season at Pitt, I’d felt nearly invincible on the football field. That year, we played in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green in Detroit.
I didn’t get into the game until midway through the first quarter, but when I got on the field it seemed like every carry was a first down. It was like, 15 yards, 15 yards, 10 yards, 10 yards, and on and on. I was stiff-arming people left and right, and running people over the whole time — and I was doing it all kind of at will. I really felt like a man among boys during that game, and when it was over I had rushed for 229 yards. I even played some defensive end during the game for good measure.
Teams started playing nine guys in the box against me. It didn’t matter.
My next game, our 2014 opener against Delaware, I had 153 yards rushing and four touchdowns … in the first half. At that point, at the start of my sophomore season, I was like, This is going to be bad for the rest of the teams we play because I’m not slowing down. It was almost as if I didn’t even see the defense. I would get handoffs, and it didn’t matter who was in front of me, or who was on the opposite side.
Early in the first quarter of our second game that season, against Boston College, the defense stuffed me on a run and the D-linemen started talking smack, trying to get in my head. They had seen the film from the week before, and they wanted to let me know that they were about to shut me down.
My next carry went for about 10 yards. After that, it was on.
I went out and put 214 yards on BC.
After that game, teams started playing nine guys in the box against me.
It didn’t matter.
I put 155 on Iowa, averaged 12 yards a carry against Georgia Tech, and ran for 220 and four TDs against UNC.
There’s a run midway through the fourth quarter against Duke where I take an inside handoff at the 26 and cut to the sideline. I was met by a tackler at the 16-yard line. That’s where my stiff-arm starts. It ends 10 yards later, at the six, with the defender off his feet, flying backwards out of bounds. I finished with 263 yards on the ground, and three touchdowns.
I led the nation in broken tackles that year. I was so confident in myself, and I truly believed that I was unstoppable.
When it was all said and done, I scored 26 touchdowns that season, was named ACC Player of the Year and broke Pitt records for rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and points scored. The marks I eclipsed had stood for 38 years, and were set by a guy whose name you might recognize: Tony Dorsett.
I was invincible.
And then, all of a sudden … I wasn’t.
Before September 6, 2015, it had been a while since I last cried. But in the time that has passed since that late summer day and right now, I’ve cried my fair share of tears.
I’m not ashamed to admit that. Not one bit.
I’ve heard people say that tears are words that, for one reason or another, you just can’t physically speak.
People think just because you’re a big, tough football player, you can’t cry.
And I think that’s right.
When you cry, it doesn’t make you any less of a man.
People think that just because you’re a big, tough football player, you can’t cry. But here’s what those people don’t get: If you have a passion for something, and work as hard as you can every single day to get better at it, and then it’s taken away from you, you’re going to be devastated.
That’s what happened to me on Sept. 6 of last year, in what turned out to be the first of several unpleasant surprises to close out 2015.
A day earlier, I was on the field for our opener against Youngstown State, and was in full-on beast mode. After just six carries, I already had two touchdowns and around 70 yards. I was like, Man, this is a repeat. I’m doing this again. ACC Player of the Year… again. Next stop, the NFL draft.
On my eighth carry, I spun out of a tackle and all I saw was green. I was about to take off when I took a shot from a tackler on my right knee. I knew something was wrong immediately, but if you watch the film, I pop back up and jog off the field by myself.
It didn’t feel that bad, honestly. But the doctors had me sit out the rest of the game as a precaution. When I was interviewed afterward, I told reporters that my knee was fine and that I’d be back the next week, because that’s what I truly believed. I just thought it was a little sprain.
The next day, though, I had an MRI, and, out of nowhere, they told me it was a torn MCL — that I’d need knee surgery and would have to miss the rest of the season.
I wasn’t expecting that news. At all.
And when I heard it, it was like my whole world had been crushed — because I had worked so hard during the off-season to improve on what I had done the previous year.
So I started crying like a baby.
I sobbed. Tears were just flowing down my face. I felt like a little kid, just bawling my eyes out.
I remember Coach Narduzzi hugging me and telling me that things were going to be alright, but I was distraught.
A few days later, after the surgery, when the team played on the road at Akron, I had to tune in to the game on TV because I was laid up in bed and couldn’t travel. That was the first time since I started playing football in fifth grade that I had to watch my teammates, my brothers, compete without me, and again, tears … lots of them.
It was rough — maybe the lowest and most down I’d ever felt in my life.
At the time, I thought nothing could be worse than laying there in that bed with a busted knee, crying, by myself, far away from my team.
It turns out that I was wrong about that.
It was Thanksgiving Day 2015 when I found out I might have cancer.
For about two months prior, I’d been struggling with fatigue, night sweats, weird bloating. When I’d lift, or run, or do anything, really, it felt like air was being pumped into my head. My face would get swollen and puffy. Any time I put my head down, even for a few seconds, like if I was going to tie my shoe, my head would start swelling up.
Four days is a really long time when you’re told that’s how long you’ll have to wait to find out whether or not you have cancer.
At the same time, I was only getting about 45 minutes of sleep a night, and my bed would be soaked with sweat when I woke up in the morning.
The doctors thought it might be the flu, or pneumonia, or strep throat, so I became a regular at the pharmacy on campus in an attempt to find a medication that could help me. But nothing worked.
So I got a chest X-ray.
That’s when things started to become more clear — and not in a good way.
Soon after getting the X-ray done, a doctor from UPMC called me up and said they’d spotted something odd in my chest. A few hours later, I was back at the hospital for a PET scan. The next day, on Thanksgiving, I received a phone call that I’ll never forget.
Almost immediately after getting me on the line, the doctor told me, “It looks like lymphoma.” He then instructed me not to engage in any physical activities over the weekend, and to stay in an upright position.
At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the word lymphoma. But I remember thinking that those were not the type of instructions you’d get if you had something like the flu. It sounded more serious than that, and for some reason I could just sense it had something to do with cancer.
I didn’t drop the phone or anything, but I didn’t want to believe it.
I was in denial. I could hear him talking, but I was just like, Yeah, yeah, O.K.
At the end of the conversation, the doctor told me to come in on Monday — four days later — for a biopsy.
Now, let me tell you, four days is a really long time when you’re told that’s how long you’ll have to wait to find out whether or not you have cancer. And the days went by even slower, I think, because I didn’t tell a single person other than my mom.
I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday.
So I have a confession to make at this point: When the doctor pulled up my biopsy scans to discuss my diagnosis, I jumped ahead. I peeked.
I couldn’t help it.
Me, my mom and our athletic trainer were in a little room at UPMC in Oakland, and the doctor started reading through some notes he was showing us on his computer. There was a paragraph at the top of the screen, and for whatever reason those words were blurry to me. But at the bottom of the screen, very clear — crystal clear — it said, “Compatible with lymphoma.”
That leaped off of the screen at me.
So the whole time that he’s talking, I was just eyeballing that.
I didn’t even hear what he was saying. It was like a movie. I could hear his voice in the background. I could hear words, and someone speaking. But, really, I was just staring at that last line.
“Compatible with lymphoma.”
When he finally got around to that part, and said that there was very good chance that I had lymphoma, my mom lost it. She started bawling.
I was just dumbfounded, mostly. First a torn MCL, and now … cancer?
I had cancer.
You realize: People die from this. That pops into your head. You can’t help it.
It’s an awful thing to find out, of course. But it’s also a strange thing to hear, because it’s just one of those things you never expect to be said to you. When you’re healthy, you find out about people being diagnosed and you sometimes don’t really think twice about it. If you hear about an athlete getting cancer, or a movie star, it’s like, Oh, wow, that’s unfortunate, but after that, to be honest, you kind of just go about your day.
Then you hear someone say cancer in reference to you, and, all of a sudden things get … real.
You recognize something, right away, when you hear those words. You realize: People die from this.
That pops into your head. You can’t help it.
You have to try and hurry up and get that thought out of your mind, but it still creeps around — the fact that you are now in a life or death situation.
And you don’t just go about your day after you find out you have cancer. Everything changes at that point — but you don’t even realize how yet, because you just found out. You kind of have to imagine what it all means.
In my case, after the doctor gave us the news, he told us he was sorry, but that was pretty much it. I asked him a question about what was going to come next, and he told me he wasn’t sure. “All I do is the biopsy,” he said, “I can’t tell you where you go from here.”
So that’s what my mom and I sat with on the ride home from the hospital.
It was real … quiet.
When I got back to my apartment, my roommate, Rachid, came in with some Chipotle.
I looked at him, and I said, “Bro, I have cancer.”
Rachid is my best friend at school. He had seen my symptoms worsen over the course of a few months, but he wasn’t expecting it to be cancer. He wasn’t ready for that.
I wasn’t ready for it either.
Neither of us felt much like eating.
We never had the Chipotle.
When you find out you have cancer, you have to tell people. You can wait a bit, I guess, but ultimately, soon enough, you have to tell some folks.
And it’s hard.
I called all four of my brothers first.
They’re all older. And they told me, to a man, “James, you got this, you know what you need to do.”
That made me feel good. And they were right, I did know what I had to do.
Then I called Coach Narduzzi.
His dad had passed away after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, so he was familiar with this type of cancer. And Coach let me know that he had no doubt that I was going to beat this thing.
I kept telling the guys that I wasn’t worried at all, that I was going to get through it. But I was very worried, actually.
Next we called a team meeting — me and Coach. We planned the whole thing out.
When I got diagnosed, I thought a lot about Eric Berry — him being a great football player, being diagnosed, beating cancer, then coming back and having a Pro Bowl season. I remembered that he did a great job at his press conference describing his path, and the ups and downs. He spoke about how chemo makes you feel, and how tough it is, but also about how you’ve got to do everything you can to overcome the challenge.
That press conference video really motivated me and showed me that this was something that could be beat. So I told Coach I wanted to play it for the whole team before I broke the news to them — that way they would know what I was getting ready to go through.
At the meeting, the whole team and all of the coaching staff were there, and I was seated in the first row. We played the video, and then Coach asked me to come up to the podium.
When I got there, it was hard for me to talk.
I was shaking.
I care about those guys so much. It was really difficult for me to let them know what I was facing – that I was about to battle cancer.
Everyone knew I hadn’t been right. They knew something was wrong. But until that meeting, they didn’t know what, exactly, was wrong with me.
So I’m at the podium and I say: “Right now, I’m looking toward Eric for some motivation because I’ve been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
But while I’m saying that, my voice is cracking. I’m literally trembling up there.
And as soon as I said those words, three-fourths of our team starts crying. They’re just ducking their heads in their shirts, tears running down their faces, because they care about me so much.
I actually had to tell one of my guys to be strong.
I was crying at that point, but he was crying even more than I was.
Throughout the meeting, I kept telling the guys that I wasn’t worried at all, that I was going to get through it.
But I was very worried, actually.
I was very nervous. And scared.
But I had to tell them that I wasn’t. I said that I couldn’t wait to take the field with them again, and all that kind of stuff. I said everything was going to be O.K.
That’s another thing you do when you get cancer: You tell people you’re gonna be fine.
You really never know, though.
At the press conference we held later that day — for reporters who assumed we had called them over to the facility to hear that I was declaring for the NFL draft — my doctor, Stanley Marks, said that Stage II lymphoma of the type I had was 85% curable. It was the first time I had heard that figure, and it gave me a lot of hope.
But he also said that nothing is guaranteed.
Eric Berry was the one who warned me about the red pee thing.
He had texted me after he heard I played his video at our team meeting, and he asked if he could call me, so we talked for about 20 minutes, and he was super encouraging. Then, right before my first chemo session, he texted me again to warn me about the red pee. So shout out to him for that!
You know what: After a while, you actually get used to it.
But there are other things about chemotherapy that you never get conditioned to. Looking back, it’s not difficult to see how I had gotten to such a low point prior to treatment six.
I’m happy to say that the lifeless feeling I experienced at the midway point in my treatments passed after a few days, and that I rallied from there — I watched a bunch of my old highlight videos, and I realized that I could be an inspiration to others, and I just … got past it. But it wasn’t easy.
They have to puncture the port in your chest in order to deliver the chemo. And it hurts.
Nothing about this process was easy. And, in fact, it started sucking even before the treatment sessions began.
That’s because in order for your body to receive the chemo medication, they first have to place a port in your chest. It’s like a bottle cap that’s put under your skin three days before your first session. The port connects to a major vein to safely give you the chemotherapy. It stays in there so they don’t have to keep poking your veins for IVs every time you need the medicine. You can shower and stuff with it in, but they don’t like you doing bench presses, or anything else that can dislodge it.
I used to touch my port all the time and move it around under my skin. I couldn’t resist.
It feels strange in there at first, but eventually you stop noticing it.
After my port was in, but before my treatments started, my teammates signed a football for me, to show their support. I brought that ball with me to every treatment session.
I began my sessions on the morning of December 8, 2015, and on that day I held that football so tight — like my life depended on it. I remember I had on a hoodie and some black sweatpants, and I was wearing gray sneakers. I was allowed to eat breakfast, so I had a sausage-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich, with some grape juice.
When I got to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside, they ushered me into the treatment room pretty quickly. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the setup is unique because there are other patients in the room receiving treatment during your session. Everyone has a pod with a curtain that you can put up to separate yourself from those around you, but hardly anyone used those curtains. So right across from me, about 20 feet away, would be another patient facing me — and it could be a little girl, or a teenage boy, or a 90-year-old woman, or a man in his 40s. There would be about six people in there at the same time.
I never pulled my curtain. I always made conversation with the other patients because I wanted to get to know them. We were all going through something similar.
Unfortunately, on my first visit, I barely got the chance to chat before there was talk of needles.
So, yeah, there’s a needle that accesses your port. It’s about an inch long, maybe an inch and a half, and it’s pretty thick. They have to puncture the port in your chest in order to deliver the chemo. And it hurts.
You could still feel a sharp pain. You can tell something pretty thick is jabbing into your chest.
Before that first session, Clate Schmidt, who was a pitcher for Clemson at the time, and a Hodgkin’s survivor, reached out to me on Instagram and offered his support. We ended up texting all night, and he gave me a bunch of tips on the process. He’s been amazing. One of the first things he told me was to make sure that the nurses gave me some numbing cream before they punctured my chest with that needle.
So when I got in there, they went to access the port, and … nothing. No numbing cream. They were just going to go for it.
I was like, “Wait, hold on, hold on, hold on, I heard something about this cream that helps with the pain.”
The nurses laughed about that a little bit — the tough guy football player asking for some numbing cream. But they got it for me. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to work, so I was just chilling on my phone, and I ended up reading a Sports Illustrated they had in the room.
The crazy thing is, even with the cream, that needle still hurt — you could still feel a sharp pain. You can tell something pretty thick is jabbing into your chest.
So, clearly, Clate is the man. Without that cream, it would’ve been way worse.
I can only imagine.
After the needle punctures your port, you kind of feel like the worst part of the chemotherapy treatment might be over. That’s not the case, though.
It gets worse.
Before you can receive the chemo medicine, the nurses have to clean the port out, so they flush it with a saline mixture in a syringe. It’s a necessary part of the process, but, let me tell you, that stuff gives you a horrible taste in your mouth — it’s like swallowing iron, or having a metal mouth or something.
It’s like you’re drinking a metal pole, that’s how I’d best describe it.
It makes your eyes water, and it’s nasty. But they have to do it to clean the port.
A little side note: I gagged every time they did those saline flushes, and even though I brought along the mints that Clate suggested, I threw up after most of the sessions because of the taste that was left in my mouth. I feel like I’m going to throw up now just thinking about it.
Everything was blue. And it seemed like she was carrying a deadly substance.
Next they take a blood sample. That’s because the chemotherapy isn’t premade — they have to measure it out according to what your blood levels are showing. So they access your port, and then you have to wait like half an hour for them to whip up the medicine. At the Hillman Center, they had a computer with movies you could watch, and some games, so I was just taking it easy while I waited.
After a few minutes, they came in and gave me my premeds — some Benadryl and some nausea medicine — and a little while after that, the nurse finally came out with the chemo.
When I saw her, I couldn’t believe it. She had a long baby blue bodysuit on, big blue rubber gloves, and a blue mask over her nose and mouth, right underneath her eyes. Everything was blue. She was all covered up, and it seemed like she was carrying a deadly substance.
The chemo comes out in a little plastic bag, and there’s three big red syringes — they’re all really, really bright red — that she uses to push the medicine into you through the port.
They push it in slow. Real slow.
It’s three pushes, and each one takes about a half hour. That’s how slow they have to go because they have to make sure that everything is flowing smooth.
As it’s happening, you feel like your body is filling up with liquid. It’s not painful, and it’s not that scary. It’s just a different feeling. And the whole time, you’re seeing that liquid being pushed into you.
Then there are two bags of clear liquid that slowly drip into your body, and those take like an hour apiece.
It’s a long day.
I’d usually go in around eight in the morning and leave at around three in the afternoon. Then, for the whole next week, your taste buds are gone. Even water would taste nasty.
And starting with the first day of your treatments until you finish up the last one, from the time you wake up in the morning, until the time you go to bed, you’re constantly reminded of things that you can’t do because of your condition.
It’s a grind. The whole thing. But you take solace in whatever you can.
At each new session, I made sure to speak with the other patients. There were elderly folks there, as well as young people. It was a mix. And there was a man there who had been doing treatments for seven years. Seven! He had his feet up, and was drinking a coffee and reading a newspaper, so he was making it look easy.
I liked that guy a lot. He was a cool dude.
If you were to ask anyone who knows me well where my favorite place to eat is, there’s a good chance they’d tell you Boston Market.
That place has always been my spot. I would eat there all the time.
So I was excited when I realized that there was a Boston Market right across the street from the cancer center where I was receiving my treatments.
To this day, when I drive past a Boston Market, my stomach starts hurting and I feel like I’m going to throw up.
After my first chemo session, I was pretty hungry. And, of course, I didn’t have to look far for a place to eat. As soon as I got out the door, I was like, “Ohhh, that’s what I want.”
So I had a rotisserie chicken, some sweet potatoes, and some macaroni and cheese with a piece of cornbread.
I ate way too soon after finishing with the medicine. Within minutes, I felt terrible.
And now, wouldn’t you know it, I can’t eat there anymore.
To this day, when I drive past a Boston Market, my stomach starts hurting and I feel like I’m going to throw up.
In retrospect, I guess it was kind of a rookie mistake, but aside from the Boston Market fiasco, I was pretty solid when it came to what happened after my sessions. As soon as I got home from that first one, I set about doing everything I could to help my body win this fight.
Both Eric and Merril Hoge, who also reached out, had told me that I had to stay active during the process. Merril would tell me these stories about how he’d leave chemotherapy and would immediately go do squats, or go run, and I always remembered that. So as soon as I got back from my first treatment, I went right into our facility on the South Side, and I got on the treadmill.
I didn’t have time to waste. And I wasn’t about to feel sorry for myself. What Merril told me stuck in my head, and I wanted to start the process off right.
When I began working out with the team again in January, I had to wear a surgeon’s mask. It was mostly to protect me from catching a cold or the flu from people when my immune system was compromised, but it was weird. And for the first couple of weeks, I would always try to avoid wearing it.
I was kind of embarrassed by that mask, to be honest. I didn’t really want to be seen out in public with it on because then people start thinking that you have something contagious, or they don’t want to shake your hand. So it was embarrassing, and I didn’t want to have it on. But with time, I got over that.
I would run on the treadmill or do my drills at our indoor facility with the mask on. My teammates ribbed me a little, but we made it work.
After I broke through the wall that was treatment six, the last six chemo sessions didn’t get any easier. But at that point, it was like a countdown, and there was light at the end of the tunnel.
When I finished up my last appointment, on May 9, I didn’t really have any desire to celebrate. My close friends and family wanted to throw a party, but I just kept remembering my doctor’s line about nothing being guaranteed.
So I treated the last session like a normal day. I didn’t make it a big deal. I just told everybody: We can celebrate when I get my scans back and I know I’m cancer free.
My PET scan was scheduled for May 23, two weeks later.
Let me tell you, two weeks is a really long time when you’re told that’s how long you’ll have to wait to find out whether or not you still have cancer.
For those 14 days, it seemed like time stood still.
The thing I remember most about leaving the hospital after my PET scan on the fourth Monday in May is how tightly I held my cellphone.
I wouldn’t let it leave my hand. And I probably looked at that phone once every 10 seconds until Dr. Marks called.
About 15 minutes after I left, I saw his number pop up on the screen and took the call.
I knew what he was going to say. I was confident. But there’s always the chance that you’re wrong — that you think you’ve accomplished something, only to find out that it didn’t end up like you thought.
So I was prepared for anything.
“James,” he said, “I have great news,” and as soon as I heard that, it was like the biggest weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Doctor Marks told me it was a CR, a complete remission.
I couldn’t stop thanking him.
I just kept saying, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again. “Thank you.”
I went with my family and friends to the Cheesecake Factory that night, but before we did that I hopped on Twitter and sent out this message:
That tweet has gotten more than 64,000 favorites and 25,000 retweets.
It was all over the place.
Somehow it ended up in Times Square, in New York, on the scroll.
It was all love. And it felt amazing.
Throughout my battle with cancer, people from all over the world have given me strength and sent their love my way.
Everyone from Bill Clinton to Mario Lemieux got in touch to share words of encouragement. And the running back community really stood up and showed me support — Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and tons of others had my back. Also Todd Gurley from the Rams. We running backs stick together, and I was touched by that outpouring.
Larry Fitzgerald texted me all the time, and my brother, Aaron Donald, was constantly reaching out and checking on me.
A few months ago, Ellen DeGeneres’s people called me up, so I got to be on TV. And Eric showed up for the taping and surprised me. So that was a fun experience.
I had a stack of letters from well-wishers. It just felt so good that I had that much support. I can’t wait to repay that kindness for the remainder of my life.
But it hasn’t just been famous people and athletes who reached out and showed me love, it’s been … everyone! One day at our training facility, Coach Narduzzi and his staff showed up with boxes of purple bracelets — thousands and thousands of them — that said CONNER STRONG. All the players and coaches wore them, and they took some home for their friends and family. Before I knew it, they were everywhere. Pitt ended up creating blue and gold versions and sold them to benefit cancer research. Seeing people wearing those bracelets was such a great reminder that I wasn’t in this fight alone.
On top of that, each day when I came down to the locker room at our facility, I had a stack of letters from well-wishers. From the very beginning all the way until the end of the process, I received letters of encouragement, and I still have a box filled with them. It just felt so good that I had that much support, and it helped me get through the toughest of times.
I can’t wait to repay that kindness for the remainder of my life.
Back in June, I was the guest of honor at a charity dinner organized by Dr. Marks that raised close to $400,000 for cancer research. And that’s just the beginning. 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.
For now, though, I’m happy to say it’s on to the football season. And I can’t wait for September 3 to get here. My knee feels great. I’m cancer-free. I’ve been working out harder than ever with my teammates. There will be no excuses. I’m ready to be even better than I was before.
I’m expecting it.
When I take the field for the first time this season, it’s going to be a wonderful day, an emotion-filled day. But I don’t want to take all the attention. It’s a team game. Right now we’re in summer workouts and we’re all out there lifting weights and running sprints. Together. This is not going to be James Conner versus Villanova.
I’m going to be alongside my brothers, and we’re going to play as a team on September 3.
Make no mistake about it, though, I’m going to embrace every moment — the pregame meal, the team movie, the bus ride, everything. And I’m definitely looking forward to that first stiff-arm.
My hometown of Erie is only two hours away, so my friends and family can make that trip. They’ll be excited for me.
And once I get my first carry, then it’ll be like, O.K., I’m back.
Then it’s just game time.
Then, finally, it will be all about playing football again.
Just like it used to be.