Dear NFL GMs:
My name is James Conner. I’m a running back who was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania. My sophomore year at Pitt I scored 26 touchdowns and was named ACC Player of the Year. But it’s more likely that you know me for one very specific thing.
It’s cool. That’s totally reasonable.
I mean, at this point I’m pretty much recognized around the world as “that football player who battled Hodgkin’s and then came back to play the following year.” I went on Ellen and sat for a bunch of TV spots with dramatic lighting and sad piano music. So I understand. I’ve come to realize that me being a cancer survivor is something I’ll never get away from. It’s a part of my story, no doubt.
But I’m writing you today to let you know that I am more than the guy who beat cancer. I’m writing to tell you some things that you don’t know about me.
When I was a junior at McDowell High, back in Erie, I played mostly defensive end. I was sacking guys left and right, but I guess college coaches weren’t all that impressed, because I wasn’t getting any looks from recruiters. Pretty much no one knew who I was, and they weren’t really trying to find out, either.
These days you hear a lot about five-star recruits. Well … I was a two-star recruit back then. I’m not positive, but I don’t think they go any lower than that. I don’t know of any one-star guys. I think a one-star guy is just like … a guy.
Two-star recruits have to put in work. So that summer after my junior season I felt like I had to take matters into my own hands. I had read about a prospect camp at Pitt — which is around a two-hour car ride from Erie —and figured that I’d show up and try to make an impression on the coaches there.
The only problem was that the entry fee was fifty bucks … and I didn’t have fifty bucks.
Reprinted with permission from Times Publishing Company, Erie, PA. Copyright 2017
I was a two-star recruit back then. I’m not positive, but I don’t think they go any lower than that.
My mom was working real hard at the time to be able to pay our bills, and I knew it would be tough. So, at first, I didn’t even want to ask her for the money.
Eventually, I told her that I wanted to play college football more than anything in the world, and that all I needed was one shot to show those coaches what I could do.
“So how much is it, James?”
“That’s a lot of money for a football camp.”
I explained to her that I knew this was my big shot, and how it would mean everything if she could just spot me the $50.
She has always believed in me, so after we talked about it, she said I could go.
I drove down to Pitt on June 6, 2012, and here’s what I did when I got there.
Over and over again, I did that to dudes — just spinnin’ off linemen, beating guys around the edge with my speed, running people over.
I got a scholarship offer on the spot. Full ride. No questions asked.
I put that work in, and it paid off.
Not many people know that I started out as a defensive player — that’s one more thing I can do.
After I committed to Pitt, I switched to running back for my senior season of high school ball, and I felt like I was performing at a very high level. So that’s when the Pitt coaches decided they might be able to use me there. My response when they asked me to switch from defensive end to running back was the same as it’s always been when I’m called on to do something to help my team win.
“Whatever you need me to do, Coach, I’m in!”
And that just so happens to be the same thing I said when I was asked to switch back to defensive end this past year for a few plays when we needed to get some pressure on the quarterback against Virginia.
There are some incredible running backs in this draft, some really talented guys, but I’m pretty sure no other back was out there doing stuff like that last year.
And, speaking of last season, before I go any further it’s probably a good time for me to share a secret with you that I didn’t really discuss with anyone while our games were taking place. This is another thing not too many people know about me….
I was probably at about 60% going into last season. Now, I definitely got stronger and better with each game. But, yeah, that’s just real talk. Sixty percent. If that.
I’d talk to my doctor each week, and he encouraged my determination. For most people who get 12 rounds of chemotherapy, it takes about six to eight months to recover — layin’ low, no lifting, just trying to gain back strength. With me, as soon as physically possible, I was out there with my brothers, with a mask over my mouth and a port still embedded in my chest, participating in workouts.
Early on, because I only had two months to prepare for the season, it was extremely difficult for me to be at my best. To be honest with you, I’d be tired just running out the tunnel.
Those first couple of games really took their toll on me.
But by the time we got to the fifth game of the season, I was starting to feel normal again. And when the 10th game of the year arrived, against Clemson at Death Valley, I was hype. I felt really good and turned up!
That Clemson game was just flat-out incredible. And, you know what? I’m sure you’ve got a ton of players to review before the draft, so if you’re pressed for time and want to get a good sense of what I can do on the football field, just cue up the game tape from that one and press play.
On the road, against the team that would go on to win the national championship — the team with the best defense in college football — I put up more than 130 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. I also caught three passes for nearly 60 yards. It was a pretty emotional experience because it was the first time in a while that the game felt like it used to for me. Early in the first quarter, I collided with Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware so violently that I actually split his face mask.
I had a bunch of memorable runs and catches during that game, but the play that really sticks out to me from that one is a carry I had with about five minutes left. We were down by eight. I took a handoff in the gun on a zone play designed to go to the left. The hole closed up fast, so I cut it all the way back, threw a stiff-arm and took it to the house.
To make a big run like that near the end of the game, and help our team give Clemson its only loss of the season? That was probably the best experience I had on the football field during my four years at Pitt.
It was also the moment in time when I knew I was finally all the way back.
So, now that I’ve told you some things you probably didn’t know about me, it’s time for me to really make my case for why you should spend an early pick on me in this draft.
First off: I’m 100% healthy. I have a clean scan showing I’m still cancer free. The knee injury I suffered a few years ago is fully healed, and I played the whole season on it without any pain. I don’t even think about it anymore. My endurance is all the way back, too. I feel good.
All winter and spring, I trained hard to get back to the shape I was in during my All-America season. When I was doing my chemo treatments last year, I had to take some medications that resulted in my weight jumping all the way up to 260 pounds — I lost most of my muscle mass and gained a bunch of fat. I worked most of that off during the season, but when I started training for the combine, I was still at about 18% body fat.
I’m down to around 7% now.
Just call me ‘Beast Mode 2.0.’
I’m quicker than I’ve ever been — just lighter on my feet. But, you know, I’m still big. Believe me. No one’s ever gonna be psyched about having to tackle me, bet that.
If you’re looking for a tough, hard-nosed back who wears down defenses, I’m your man.
I know you guys love comps, so my favorite running back of all time is Marshawn Lynch, and that’s the best comparison I can give you. He’s always got such amazing willpower to go along with an “I’m not gonna be denied” mentality, and those are two things I bring to the table every time I suit up. I’m not going down on first contact. It’s just not gonna happen. I’m breaking tackles and fighting for extra yards every time I get the ball, just like Marshawn.
Just call me “Beast Mode 2.0.” (As long as that’s cool with Marshawn, of course.)
I’m next in line, and ready to follow in his footsteps. Anything you need from a back, I can do. Obviously I’m gonna run hard. That’s a given. But if you also want somebody who can pass-protect and catch the ball out of the backfield, I’ve shown over and over again that I can do those things extremely well. Plus, because of how I play, and the intensity I bring to the game, I’m a guy that people want to line up with — a leader.
And, make no mistake about it: I’ve never had it easy. Ever since I was a two-star recruit from Erie, I’ve had to scratch and claw and outwork people, and I’ve done nothing but prove doubters wrong time and time again. So I’m more confident than ever that before all is said and done, people are going to know me more as a great football player than as a cancer survivor.
I don’t set little goals. I mean, I’m trying to be in the Hall of Fame one day. That’s where I’m looking to take this. That’s where my head’s at.
If that goal sounds overly ambitious, or like an unrealistic dream, just think about what I went through to get here.