It may not have seemed like much of a big deal, but, in fact, it was truly momentous. About 10 minutes into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home opener on Sunday, rookie running back James Conner checked onto the grass for the first time at Heinz Field wearing the black and gold during a game.
Actually, to be technical, it was the second snap of the game that he had played, following the opening kickoff, functioning as the right flank of a wedge and blocking a Vikings coverage player quite literally off the field entirely and into the white.
But his real debut came 10 minutes of game time later, when he got his first chance to check into a game at home and hear the crowd cheer specifically for him. There is no doubt that he was quite fired up at that point, and he made the most of his one opportunity in the game to touch the ball.
Just a play after Le’Veon Bell pushed the ball to the Vikings’ 28-yard line by converting for a three-yard gain on second and three, the coaching staff gave him a one-play blow to check Conner into the game. Given an outside zone run with a pair of tight ends functioning as lead blockers up the right sideline, he steamed ahead for a nine-yard gain.
Hurdling over Marcus Gilbert, who had fallen while getting out front to block, at the 27-yard line, Conner spun away from the grasp of a defender shortly after that and proceeded to launch himself forward to gain as much yardage as possible on the play.
He was visibly energized as he checked back off the field on the sideline, where he was treated to a firm handshake from Head Coach Mike Tomlin amidst the roar of the crowd, followed by a tap on the helmet from offensive coordinator Todd Haley, a pat from Landry Jones, and greetings from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson, among others.
You could tell by his mannerisms how much unspent energy and emotion built into that moment: the wide eyes, the nervous movements, the glancing looks all around. This was a moment that had been building for years from the local boy out of Erie.
It was a major milestone marker in his football journey, for obvious reasons. Having overcome his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while playing at Pitt, on the same field where he now works for a living, for the team that he grew up cheering for, with the players that he got to know and who were there for him during his dark days—there’s simply no substitute for it.
The entire day was clearly important for Conner, who took to Twitter yesterday with a simple message, an image of himself kneeling on the field, his head bowed and one hand over his face, captioned just, “can’t say thank you enough..”
Can’t say thank you enough.. pic.twitter.com/uNXytSUDCH
— James Conner (@JamesConner_) September 19, 2017