Conner has credited a severe knee injury he suffered at the start of his junior season with possibly saving his life. His confounding struggles during subsequent physical rehabilitation sessions eventually led to the discovery of a tumor in his chest, and he has said that if he had been able to play, he might have “died on the field” because the tumor was pressing on blood vessels around his heart.
“My heart, I got tumors growing all around it,” Conner said recently during a podcast hosted by Michael Seander, who performs as a hip-hop artist under the moniker Mike Stud.
Of a discussion with a doctor, who informed him he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Conner told Seander, “He said you got about a week — if you didn’t get this treated, you had about a week, at the rate it was growing.”
That conversation took place on Thanksgiving Day in 2015, after Conner, who entered that season as the reigning ACC player of the year, tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the first half of the first game of the season.
Conner said on the podcast, “It’s easy to say it was the darkest time ever,” and he claimed that the “hardest part about the whole thing” was giving the news to his four older brothers.
“How would they feel if their youngest brother was not here no more? How would they feel if their youngest brother died?” Conner wondered aloud. “I said I can’t do it. I can’t go.”
Starting that December, Conner began a regimen of chemotherapy treatments every two weeks for six months. He didn’t let that stop him from practicing with the Pitt Panthers, although his compromised immune system meant he had to wear a surgical mask as he went through drills, and he couldn’t be tackled because he had a port in his chest through which the chemotherapy was administered.
Finally, in May 2016, Conner was able to announce that he was “clean of cancer.” Having been granted a medical redshirt for his junior season, he proved that fall that he was still a major force on the field, as he rushed for almost 1,100 yards and had 1,394 yards from scrimmage, with 20 touchdowns.
Unsure of where he might go in the 2017 draft after his illness, Conner was delighted to be able to stay near his hometown of Erie, Pa., when the Steelers took him in the third round. He rewarded the club perhaps sooner than either side expected, after Le’Veon Bell opted to sit out the 2018 season in a contract dispute, paving the way for Conner to pile up 1,470 yards from scrimmage, with 13 touchdowns.
Conner also got a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts, and after that honor was announced, he shared a text message he got from Rams defensive tackle and former Pitt star Aaron Donald just after his 2015 diagnosis. Donald declared then that Conner would “bounce back stronger and better than ever” and would play in several Pro Bowls.
Conner thanked Donald for the “motivation” and said, “Hard work pays off!”
In the podcast, Conner made it clear that he would never take for granted his success in the NFL, not after going through such a harrowing experience.
“With cancer, it’s the first thing you think about when you wake up, and it’s the last you think about before you go to bed,” he told Seander. “That [expletive] consumes you.”