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‘Just so blessed’: Pitt’s James Conner, a cancer survivor, emotional in getting award

James Conner is shown after a Pittsburgh win in November. (Jared Wickerham/AP)

James Conner gave plenty of early indications that he wasn’t going to let a cancer diagnosis end his college football career, but his season for Pittsburgh was still stunning — and uplifting. After going through rounds of chemotherapy in the spring that helped rid him of the disease, the junior running back rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding a further 299 yards and four scores through the air.

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On Thursday, in a ceremony televised by ESPN, Conner was presented with the Disney Spirit Award, and the 6-2, 235-pound player was overcome with emotion. After walking up onstage to receive the award, he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he was “just so blessed.”

“With that cancer, it don’t care if you’re black or white,” Conner said, after wiping tears from his eyes. “It comes, and it comes hard. . . . There’s people out there fighting, and they don’t get this, they don’t receive any awards if they win and when they win, and so this is for all of us.”

While onstage, Conner pointed to ESPN’s Holly Rowe and Shelley Smith, both cancer survivors in their own right. “We have a bond that can’t be broken,” Conner said of the two reporters. “We’re best friends now. To everybody going through this, they got a friend in me.”

Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma around Thanksgiving last year, but by February he was training with his fellow Panthers, despite needing to wear a mask to protect his then-fragile immune system. He couldn’t be tackled in drills because he had a port in his chest through which the chemotherapy was administered, but in May, Conner declared himself “clean of cancer.”

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In addition to family members, Conner brought his oncologist to Thursday’s ceremony. Earlier in December, he was given the Brian Piccolo Award, which is in honor of the “most courageous” football player in the ACC.

Conner was named the ACC player of the year for his 2014 season, which included 1,765 yards and a conference-record 26 touchdowns on the ground. His cancer diagnosis came after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of Pitt’s 2015 campaign.