Yesterday was the Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction, during which not one but two Pittsburgh Steelers running backs—current and former—were honored. Among them was second-year James Conner, who received the Sportsman of the Year Award during the event.
“I couldn’t be Pittsburgh Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year without getting that call”, he said at the beginning of his acceptance speech, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “So, if anybody has anything else nice to say, make sure you say it to [Steelers president Art Rooney II], because I want to be a Steeler for life”.
That is certainly what you want to hear from your young Pro Bowl running back, though of course that is the same thing that we heard from Le’Veon Bell at around the same point in his career. Conner’s opportunity to start in 2018 came because Bell chose not to play for Pittsburgh without a long-term contract in place.
“I am aware of the past winners of the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award and I’m honored to be in their company”, Conner originally said in a statement when it was announced that he would be the recipient last month. “I want to thank all of the fans who voted for me, the Dapper Dan board and the Rooney family. I know it is a very prestigious award and I’m very much looking forward to receiving it”.
Though he was limited to 13 games due to a high ankle sprain late in the season, Conner rushed for 973 yards on 215 carries during the year. His 12 rushing touchdowns were tied for the most in the AFC along with Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans.
In addition to his work on the ground, he caught 55 passes for another 497 yards and a 13th touchdown. His performance was enough to earn himself Pro Bowl honors during his first season as a starter. He will prepare for his first year in that role without the pressure of Bell ahead of him in 2019.
Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis was also at the dinner to receive a separate award, and he spoke about his own history with the Steelers, what the organization meant to him, and why he played the game.
“Like Jerome said, greatness — that’s why I’m in this game is to be great”, Conner said. Making the Pro Bowl so early on gets him off to a good start, but he knows how much work is ahead of himself to not only continue the pace, but to pick it up.
He spoke earlier this offseason about his mentality of believing that he hasn’t locked anything up. His goal over the course of the spring and summer is literally to earn the starting running back job, as though it’s in question. But that is the mindset that can take him far.