James Conner driven to show 'a way to be better from adversity'

You've likely heard of James Conner and his inspiring tale by now.

At one point in his life, the self-described introvert might have felt uncomfortable about that fact. He never thought he'd be writing a book, but there he was Tuesday, celebrating that day's release of his autobiography Fear is a Choice, when he took a few moments to talk with NFL.com.

It might seem a little early for a 25-year-old entering his fourth NFL season to write a book, but not so for Conner, whose life has already taken enough twists and turns to fill more than 200 pages.

"I didn't want to wait too long," Conner told me. "Because I wanted to have it while I'm still playing. I want to have a long career, but in this league, there's no telling."

There's no telling which play will be a player's last, when a pro will go from active NFLer to retired -- or from budding collegiate star to cancer patient. That's the exact shift Conner experienced during his junior season at the University of Pittsburgh, when he'd been expected to reinforce his standing as the Atlantic Coast Conference's reigning Player of the Year and make the leap to a promising pro career. Instead, he was sidelined by a torn MCL in the fall of 2015, which Conner considers a potentially life-saving injury. Why? Well, it was during his rehab from that ailment when doctors first noticed cancer symptoms. Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma.

Seemingly in an instant, his whole world changed. He was no longer fighting through would-be tacklers in pursuit of his goals and dreams, but for his life.

It was during that time, Conner writes in his new book, he realized his purpose wasn't merely to be a star running back. Sure, he was a Division I athlete, but as he'd learn through his battle, he was making a much greater impact than he could by simply racking up numbers in a stat box.

As Conner's story spread, so did support for him. Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who'd fought back from his own diagnosis with Hodgkin lymphoma in December of 2014 to earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2015, reached out to him. The two eventually met in person, when Conner made an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, as Conner recalls in his book. But it was the less-publicized meetings that opened his eyes to how important his battle was to so many others.

The reason Conner fought to be able to continue playing the sport he loves can be found in the title of the book's final chapter, Play For Those Who Can't, which also explains why he wrote the book in the first place. Conner's battle against cancer taught him so much more than he would have learned just from the education the average Division I student-athlete receives in the classroom, and he's intent on passing that wisdom on to as many people as possible.

"My faith is strong, so I wanted to let that definitely be known," Conner explained. "But also, I wanted to honestly inspire and let people know that you can't really escape adversity, but there's always a way to be better because of it and overcome it.

"I had a football coach who told me, 'Use adversity to do something great.' ... There's so many different forms of it. Mine just happened to be cancer. I used that opportunity to tell myself it was going to be a comeback story and I was going to do it. So I just wanted to inspire people and let them know there's a way to be better from adversity."

His story has inspired scores of people, as evidenced by his meteoric rise up the jersey sales charts as a Steelers rookie. He hopes his book makes an even greater impact. While he may have had his goal of returning to the field on his mind during his struggle to beat cancer, he realized his purpose -- a word he uses often in his book as he weaves anecdotes with lessons he's learned and wants to share with the reader -- is much greater than scoring touchdowns.

"That's why it's awesome that the book is out and (will) reach so many people," Conner said. "I've been getting beautiful messages about people who didn't know my story before, even though it's four years later, and they're just now finding out. They become a supporter of mine, a fan of mine, and that really means a lot, for my support and love to keep growing. It's awesome."

One of the biggest lessons he learned through his journey was the importance of patience. He needed patience when he sat in the chair at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh with a port catheter in his chest and felt himself start to feel ill during chemotherapy treatments. He needed patience when he watched his fellow Division I standouts enjoy success while he was wearing a surgical mask and battling extreme fatigue to complete the day's workout.

He also needed patience when, after returning to run for 1,092 yards and 16 scores in 2016, he finally realized his NFL dream of being drafted, only to sit behind Le'Veon Bell, the best running back in football at the time.

"It taught me that I'm not in control of this," Conner said of his cancer fight. "I thought I was gonna be a first-rounder (if) I have a big year in 2016, but now it's like, 'OK, no,' and you deal with this, and you go in the third round. Over time, it showed that I'm supposed to be there for a reason, you know, the way things panned out. Now I'm with the Steelers, and now I'm starting, and it's kind of like somebody else is in control of my life, and I feel like that's God. That definitely taught me patience. ... You just have to put your head down and keep working, but also wait your turn."

Patience will again be important for Conner in a contract year, something about which he's already been asked plenty. Will he stay with the Steelers, the team that took a relative risk on him just a year after he'd been declared free of cancer? At least with this hurdle, he had an idea this situation would be coming.

"I knew after the third year that was going to be the next question," Conner said. "I've got patience. I'm going to continue to be patient with it. I'm ready to just play, that's all it is. I never really played for the money. ... I just do my thing. I love the game. The game's been so good to me, so everything that comes with it is honestly just a reward. It'll happen when it happens."

"I wanted to honestly inspire and let people know that you can't really escape adversity, but there's always a way to be better because of it and overcome it." James Conner

Conner might need a strong year after last season. Injury issues limited him to just 10 games, 464 rushing yards and four touchdowns, a far cry from his Pro Bowl-caliber production (973 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) in 2018. Of course, he once again needed the trait that has already carried him so far: patience.

At this point, knee and shoulder injuries aren't much to a man who had to fight for his survival before he'd even completed his junior year of college. He's already discovered the toughness within him needed to work through challenges on the field. It's a little bit easier to deal with the frustration of being sidelined when it's already been proven that your life is about more than just gaining a first down.

After all, his entire story could have been much different -- and much less significant.

"Honestly, I think about that often," Conner said. "What if I never even got a scholarship to Pitt, how different my life would've been. Because I got treated in Pittsburgh, one of the top medical cities in the world. I truly don't know, but my faith is so strong because now I feel like I know my life's purpose, and that's to give to others and inspire others. I'm thankful to have that perspective and feel like that's my calling and have that figured out at the age I am."

Now, it's all about approaching 2020 with a familiar mindset: completing the comeback.

"The game was almost taken from me early," Conner said, "and I know what I went through was really dramatic, so now I know ... I don't want injuries to happen, but I enjoy the highs, but also I appreciate the tough times, too, because without the tough times, you can't really enjoy the things like you want to.

"So now I know I'm poised for a good 2020 year after 2019 was filled with a couple injuries. I'm just looking forward to getting back out there and getting this redemption."

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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