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James Conner‘s junior year at the University of Pittsburgh is one he’d probably like to forget. These days, however, he uses that year as motivation. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back knows he has a second chance at life after being diagnosed with cancer. Conner is determined to make the most of that second chance.

James Conner’s NFL career

Running back James Conner was selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Conner was the eighth running back taken. He signed a four-year deal worth more than $3 million with the Steelers. He played sparingly in his first year behind starter Le’Veon Bell. Connor finished his rookie season with 32 carries for 144 yards and no touchdowns.

Conner got his big break in 2018 when Bell couldn’t agree with the Steelers on a long-term contract. He made the most of his opportunity. Conner, in his first NFL start, rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns.

Conner was a workhorse in his first season as a starter. He carried the ball 215 times in 2018 and rushed for 12 scores. He also caught 55 passes and a touchdown out of the backfield. Last season, Conner battled through some nagging injuries and played in just 10 games. He scored four rushing touchdowns and caught three touchdown passes.

Conner’s cancer diagnosis

After a tremendous sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh where he rushed for 1,765 yards and scored 26 touchdowns, James Conner played one game as a junior. Conner tore his MCL in the season opener and missed the season. Conner suffered a more devastating blow when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma while rehabbing his knee.

During a Ya Neva Know: ya know what I mean podcast, Conner revealed he was having trouble sleeping during the time he was rehabbing. “I’m rehabbing for that, trying to make a comeback before the season ends. And then …night sweats, bro,” Conner said. “I’m getting like 15 minutes of sleep at night, going through it. Sleep, who (doesn’t) love sleep? That’s the worst (stuff) in the world … And so I get some tests done, and I got tumors surrounding my heart … I got tumors growing all around it, and it’s pressing.”

Conner then got the shock of his life. “The doctor told me I had about a week left,” Conner said. “He said, ‘You got about a week.’ If you didn’t get this treated, you had about a week at the rate it was growing.” After undergoing extensive chemotherapy, Conner was cancer-free and returned to the football field for his senior year.

Conner making the most of his second chance

James Conner is pretty good at football. He’s also pretty good at capitalizing on opportunities. When Le’Veon Bell held out, Conner took full advantage. When Conner was declared cancer-free in college, he bounced back with 1,092 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior year.

After what may be considered a down year last year in the NFL, Conner is back at it working hard. He looks back at the MCL tear and the cancer diagnosis and the one-week-to-live scare and he’s learned from it. He appreciates the second chance. In a tweet Thursday, Conner said he was thankful and appreciates his new outlook on life.

He said he remembers shedding tears while working out because he couldn’t believe how much energy he had lost. He said he’s thankful for the second chance and the option to go hard. Don’t bet against James Conner.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference