The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday already very much aware of the fact that it was a day so much more than football. It was the first time that the team would be returning to the site of a devastating spinal injury suffered by Ryan Shazier in December. That he was able to walk back into stadium this week was a remarkable moment that transcends the game.
But there was another moment during the day that had a similar impact for one player in particular: James Conner, the running back who is fifth in rushing yards and second in touchdowns, with over 700 yards of offense and the resume of a cancer survivor.
While he repeatedly talks about not wanting to be known as the football player who had cancer, he has never been shy about opening up about his experiences, saying that he has been thankful for being given the opportunity to be a source of inspiration for others going through the same thing.
And he was that for one young fan in the audience. At one point during the game, Conner noticed the sign that the boy was holding, which read that he had just completed his first round of chemotherapy.
Recently appearing on First Things First, he called it a “very special moment. I can relate firsthand, and that’s why I’m thankful for my situation, because I know firsthand what you’re going through”.
“No matter how big the moment is, how big the stage is, I know my past”, Conner went on, “and so for me to go over there and take some time out, take a picture with him, sign a football for him, it’s priceless. I know firsthand what he’s going through, and it means everything for me to be an inspiration for him”.
The running back was later asked how he tries to balance living in the moment and taking stock of where he has been. “There’s days go by where I think about it. I’m just always grateful. Some days I’ll be on the practice field”, he said, “I’ll just be looking at my helmet and just like, ‘ah, man, I achieved my lifelong dream’. I remember being seven years old, thinking what it would be like to play in the NFL, and for everything it took for me to get there, almost tears start to come down because I’m just so thankful.
“But business is business though. I can’t have time to be soaking it up and being in a moment”.
You might have seen a viral image of Conner and Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry embracing following their Week Two game. That was no accident. They have come to know each other well, and other cancer survivors in the league as well. He called it “a brotherhood”, also among them Dave Quessenberry, currently with the Tennessee Titans, who had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“Those are my guys”, he said. “EB was the first, and I always say I’m thankful for EB for setting the tone. He was the first one that I knew about, and for him” to show that you can come back and play at a high level from cancer was huge, for Conner and others.
“It gives hope”, he said. It lets people know out there who are going through it that there’s life after their situation, and you use that adversity to do something great. And so that’s why I’m thankful for that adversity”.
Conner doesn’t want to be known as the football player who had cancer, but not because he is ashamed of it. He simply wants to be recognized for what he does on the field, not pitied or graded on a curve. He makes cancer a part of his story and will always have time to embrace it where it’s applicable. And that’s not after every carry, but when he sees a sign in the stands.