Pittsburgh Steelers second-year running back James Conner knows a thing or two about handling adversity in life. I know those reading this don’t need to hear his backstory, but the football injuries alone are enough to garner him some level of sympathy for what he has had to go through.
The 2017 third-round draft pick is coming off a torn MCL that he suffered late in his rookie season, but he was able to fully rehabilitate in time to compete during the Steelers’ OTAs, where he is afforded a special opportunity because of Le’Veon Bell and his contract situation, which has resulted in him keeping himself away from the team.
Conner recently spoke to reporters during OTAs about where he is right now and where he wants to get to, and focused on how he is going to get there. “Just to get some more game-speed experience, just being out there with the first-team O and D, it’s been an opportunity for me to learn”, he said of the valuable reps afforded him by Bell’s absence.
This is the second year in a row for him, of course, to get higher-quality reps because Bell is not there. The All-Pro running back is holding out from signing his franchise tag until the last possible moment before the regular season starts, but is hoping to get a long-term contract done instead.
These reps at OTAs might not mean much for a sixth-year veteran, but for Conner, going into his second season with fewer than 40 touches to his name, “it’s important”, he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to grow. The first step to getting better is showing up and participating, and I’m thankful that I’m able to participate, being 100 percent healthy, so I’m just taking it one day at a time”.
Conner is recently two years free of cancer. He also had to come back from a tear of his ACL during his college career, so he’s well-versed in experiencing the loss of having football taken away from him for a period of time. it’s no surprise that he so highly values the opportunity that he has right now just to be on the field and healthy.
As for how he plans to get to where he wants to be, which is a successful and regular contributor to a great team, “It’s hard work”, he told reporters. “Easy as that. Hard work and time. I’ve been here this offseason working with our strength coaches and our training staff and they’ve got me ready, so I’m ready to go”.
And he does look ready. He reported to OTAs in great shape, checking in with a slimmer frame that should presumably improve his endurance. He has talked this offseason about wanting to work on ‘all aspects’ of the passing game, including pass protection, so he knows where that hard work and time needs to go.