As Pitt running back James Conner was entering the 2017 NFL Draft, following his final collegiate season in which he played while continuing to overcome the aftereffects of length chemotherapy treatments, he penned an article for The Players’ Tribune in which he said that he didn’t want to be known as the football player who had cancer.
Now following his second season, in which he earned Pro Bowl recognition while rushing for nearly 1000 yards and nearly 500 more through the air with 13 scores in 13 games, it is becoming easier to accept the duality of his life as he finds confidence and stature in both.
As a man who was able to overcome cancer, as a professional athlete who has excelled at his job, and as a combination of the two, Conner is finding balance in his life and acceptance of the place that both share within his day-to-day reality, which is something that he spoke about as he prepares to receive the Dapper Dan Man of the Year Award.
“It’s hitting me. It’s becoming the normal”, he said of being a role model and an inspiration for those going through similar trials in their lives. “At first it was new. Now it’s becoming the normal because that is the plan for me, to have an impact on people. It will always be there. People draw inspiration from it. I like to be in that position”.
While he has never shied away from embracing his identity as a cancer survivor and of using that for good, he struggled with the thought of that becoming his identity, but now that he has already established himself as a legitimate competitor in the NFL, it is something that he can take on more fully and without reservation.
“It’s the best of both worlds. People are recognizing me for something I did in my personal life and for what I am doing for a great organization”, he said. “When you put it all together it’s a lot of fun. It means a lot to me. The support never goes unnoticed. It’s an honor to take the field for the Steelers and I hope to do it for a long time to come”.
Conner is an easy person to root for, as evidenced by the fact that he had one of the top-selling jerseys of 2017, his rookie season, in spite of the fact that he was just a third-round pick and played only sparsely the entire year.
While there are still areas of his game that he needs to work on—such as ball security—everything seems to be going roughly according to plan. He is preparing for his first full NFL offseason as an uncontested, established starter, ready to help lead his local team back to success. Meanwhile, he leads a rich and fulfilling dual life off the field helping others. That is Man of the Year material for sure.