James Conner’s draft story is really one of the best that we have had in years. A local kid and cancer survivor gets drafted by his local team—the team in whose stadium he played in college. The team he already had bonds with among the players and coaches, since they shared the same facility.
The fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers back has only proceeded to make good on his draft story by emerging as the team’s starting running back last season and going on to make the Pro Bowl makes it all the more special, a confirmation of the fact that he was always more than just a story.
You might recall, shortly before the draft, he wrote an essay for The Players’ Tribune in which he said he didn’t want to be known as ‘the football player who had cancer’. Even through much of his breakout season a year ago, the coverage still hung on that, but going forward, it’s fair to say he’ll be stepping out of that shadow, and it will be just a footnote in his professional life.
Conner recently appeared on a podcast with Mike Stud, in which he talked about a wide variety of subjects, but one of the first things that they did was to revisit his draft story, watching his segment from the Hey Rookie show on NFL Network, with cameras following him on draft day.
He said in a Buffalo Wild Wings waiting, hoping to be drafted on day two, as he impatiently waited with his phone in his hand until he finally got the call from the Steelers at the end of the third round, in the compensatory stage. He shared a funny anecdote about that wait.
“So, check it out. My agent, both our agents was working, and he talked to the Steelers. The Steelers said, ‘don’t answer the phone unless you see a 412 number’. I’m like, ‘bro, whoever calls this phone, I’m picking up’”.
Of course he was thrilled once he saw that local area code on his phone, one he was used to seeing having played for Pitt. Once the phone finally did ring, “it was 412, so I knew it was the ‘Burgh”, he said.
As he and Stud went through that video again, Conner couldn’t help but go back to that moment. His four older brothers all surrounded him as he spoke, likely only half understanding, to his new head coach, Mike Tomlin, on the phone.
“I put myself in the moment again. I could feel them touching me, you know what I’m saying?”, he said. He said that he was the youngest and the smallest of his siblings, all of whom were athletes, but he was the only one to go on to play at the college level. He credited them for helping him grow into the player he is. “Every day it’s like, come home from school, drop that book bag, we just wrestling”.
The young back couldn’t help but tell Stud, “I wish I could do this 100 times over”, calling it “easily” the best moment of his life to date. It all certainly made for a good story, but it’s just one chapter, in fact, in a compelling and ongoing work he’s currently writing, with a big turning point coming this fall.