It’s hard for any team to rival the running back stories that the Pittsburgh Steelers have. Whether it’s the team encouraging Rocky Bleier to come back and try out for the team after he returned from the Vietnam War as a wounded veteran, or allowing Jerome Bettis to retire a Super Bowl champion in his home town, or drafting the local Pitt product who overcame cancer and inspired a region, the Steelers pretty much have a monopoly on inspiring running back backgrounds.
But a storybook beginning doesn’t promise a storybook ending. Even Franco’s Italian Army marched its final orders in another city. Le’Veon Bell had the legacy of the position in Pittsburgh at his fingertips, but he wasn’t interested. And just because James Conner had about as great a draft story as you can imagine doesn’t guarantee he’s going to be in a Steelers uniform for the rest of his career.
That said, the story of his draft day, now about three years back, can’t be taken away, as he recently recalled in an interview with ESPN. “It was just surreal. Sharing that facility already and being in Pittsburgh already, and then for me to come there and have an opportunity to play…everybody in my home town is Steeler fans, so it’s just a lot of love and support”, he said. “Draft night was just the best. It was getting late, and when I saw that 412 number, they finally called, it was just like, ‘this is the moment’, I’ve always seen and just always visualized growing up”.
Drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, he would largely take a back seat to Bell during his rookie season, at the end of which he landed on injured reserve due to a knee injury. But he came back strong in 2018 and was ready to seize the opportunity presented by Bell’s no-show. He rushed for nearly 1000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns in 13 games en route to a Pro Bowl.
The city that already loved him now embraced him as a critical member of the team and to their success. There was love, and it went both ways. “I’ve been in the city for going on eight years now”, he said. “It’s just a lot of love. I love being a Steeler, I love the city. I love everything about it”.
Fandom definitely has an ugly side to it, and after the down year that Conner had in 2019, almost entirely due to injuries, it does seem as though a lot of fans are ready to move on, some of them even saying some disparaging things. Granted, this is the minority, but we even see the comments on our articles here. They do happen.
Conner is now in the final year of his rookie contract, though, and it is not at all clear that he will be re-signed next offseason when he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Obviously, how he performs this season will be a big factor in that.