The ‘pressure’ to perform on the football field is something that comes up a lot in this game, especially when the subject in question is a player stepping into a role that he has not served in before. It’s not necessarily a bad question to ask—the pressure really exists—but for some players, life is so much more than a game.
Take second-year running back James Conner, who is going to start the season opener for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and for at least as long as Le’Veon Bell chooses not to show up because his goal is to preserve his body for the 2019 free agency period to sign the largest contract he possibly can.
A third-round compensatory pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Conner carried the ball just 32 times as a rookie for 144 yards without scoring a touchdown. He caught zero passes. With a very good game, it’s conceivable that he could double his career totals by the evening.
Pressure to replace Bell? What pressure? There’s “no pressure on me”, he told reporters over the week. “There are a lot of people waiting to see how my performance is going to be”, he admitted, but he said, “as long as we win, I’m cool”.
He wasn’t the only player who had to answer that question about himself, however. Virtually everybody in the locker room was polled on the second-year player from a variety of angles, including addressing the sort of pressure that he is under.
Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey scoffed when it was his turn to face that question. He beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the team captain pointed out. That’s pressure. This is a game. Like left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who has seen live combat, they bring a different perspective about the significance of a sport to the overall package of a life.
Sure, Conner will be excited and anxious to get out there on the field. But it’s also something that he has been waiting for, striving for, for years. It will be surreal to hear his name called as a member of the starting lineup of his hometown team.
But the game will still be the game once the whistle blows. Football is what he has known for most of his life. That part is second-nature. He knows that he can be successful on the football field. That is not an unknown. His life isn’t in danger.
None of this is meant to diminish the impact or the significance of Conner’s first career start, either to the team or to himself, or frankly for all of the fans that are pulling for him. It’s a great moment to be sure. But he’s been through too much to be overcome with the pressure of performing in a game he’s played since childhood.