During the 2013 college football season, Paul Chryst and the Pittsburgh Panthers discovered their future in two freshman standouts James Conner and Tyler Boyd. For their freshman and sophomore years, Conner and Boyd provided a great offensive threat against opponents. Conner, a hard-nosed between the tackles power back, led the team in rushing both years and earned himself the ACC Offensive Player of the Year award. Boyd also led the team in receiving both years with his great speed and reliable hands for young quarterbacks Tom Savage and Chad Voytik.
Following two great years of anticipated success, Panther fans were eager for the 2015 season for another year of offensive dominance behind Boyd and Conner. But during all the hype of Week 1, Conner tore his MCL in his right knee after just seven carries. Fans were disappointed but did not know that what was about to happen to Conner may not allow him to play football ever again for the rest of his life. In December, he publicly stated for the first time that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma, a rare type of cancer disallowing the star running back to take place on the field for the rest of the season. Conner promised fans and himself that he would fight this and to make sure that he would be on the field in the season opener for the 2016 season.
After going through just twelve sessions of chemotherapy, the familiar face for Panther fans led the team through the tunnel for the season opener against Villanova, fulfilling his promise. Conner took place on the field for the first offensive snap of the game. In his honor, quarterback Nathan Peterman handed the ball off to Conner in a play that resulted in a one yard loss. Regardless of the result, Pitt fans erupted in applause for the running back on making his return to the sport that less than a year ago he was not guaranteed ever to play again.
Conner didn’t care how much of an impact he made this year in August. He expressed his feelings to reporters saying his battle was already won and everything else from this point on is extra. He was not expected to play much at the time, since sophomore Qadree Ollison gained the edge in spring after (like Conner) having a standout year as a freshman and becoming the Freshman Player of the Year. Where Conner is at this point in the year is beyond expectations. To even take the field in the season opener was beyond expectations. Yet, here he is, continuing from where he left off two seasons ago plowing through defenses looking at another impressive year. Conner was hands down the offensive captain whether he got the nod to start off the year or not. Conner’s dreams of playing the NFL one day was pushed back a year ago but now he is back in the driver’s seat and says himself that everything felt just like a normal game from week one of his return.