A year ago, James Conner was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment as it waged a battle against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that left the Pittsburgh star running back drained but resolute.
Conner never doubted he’d make the NFL. Even as the drugs sapped his strength and wreaked havoc on his immune system.
Then the phone rang on Friday night as the third round of the 2017 NFL draft neared a close. It was the Pittsburgh Steelers offering him a job. And just like that, Conner’s journey from cancer patient to cancer survivor to professional football player was over.
Yet Steelers running backs coach James Saxon wanted to make one thing very clear after the Steelers took him with the 105th overall pick in the draft. This wasn’t a public relations move or an act of charity for a young man who has become an inspiration. This is about winning football games. And that’s it.
“This is not a story about sentiment,” Saxon said. “This is a story about a young man that is a very good football player … and I hope the guys we play against are sentimental.”
Probably not. The 6-foot-1, 233-pound Conner gives the defending AFC North champions a physical yin to star Le’Veon Bell’s athletic yang. Conner set an Atlantic Coast Conference record by scoring 56 touchdowns during his abbreviated career at Pitt, including 16 last season during his emotional comeback from the stunning cancer diagnosis on Thanksgiving in 2015 that threatened to end his career before it really began.
Yet Conner never stopped working. He trained with his teammates even as he underwent treatment and as his redshirt junior season went on last fall, the power and relentlessness that made him the 2014 ACC Player of the Year returned. He ran for 132 yards in an upset win over eventual national champion Clemson, part of a finishing kick in which he went over 100 yards in four of his final six games.
He embraced becoming a role model as a cancer survivor, something that became known locally as #ConnerStrong. It’s more than just a hashtag. What Conner lacks in Bell’s agility he makes up for in fury, a throwback for a franchise whose history is littered with running backs that doubled as bulldozers.
Saxon called Conner a “no frills” player, one that won’t be a stranger when he arrives at rookie minicamp next month. The Steelers and Pitt work in the same building in the city’s South Side neighborhood and Conner already considers Bell a friend. Conner insisted he’s not looking to challenge Bell’s spot. He’s just going to learn as much as he can while trying to fit in on a team with designs of reaching the Super Bowl.
“They all have great chemistry,” Conner said. “Hopefully I can just come in there and pick it up. Keep this ball rolling.”
Conner wasn’t the only weapon Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received on Friday. The Steelers took USC wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster in the second round, giving Roethlisberger a big target to hopefully take some of the pressure off All-Pro Antonio Brown.
“Really kind of a do it all guy,” Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of Smith-Schuster. “Can play inside (and) outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, the ability to catch the ball in combative situations. Those 50/50 balls, he usually comes down with them.”
The 6-foot-2 Smith-Schuster caught 213 passes for 3,092 yards and 25 touchdowns in three years with the Trojans before electing to enter the draft early. Schuster-Smith is the youngest wide receiver in the draft. He won’t turn 21 until November, when he’s more than halfway through his rookie season.
“I’ll do anything possible to bring the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, special teams, be a role player,” Schuster-Smith said.
Smith-Schuster also likes to block, a trait that endeared him to the Pittsburgh coaching staff, though he didn’t know it. Smith-Schuster said he only spoke to the Steelers during the NFL combine in February and didn’t hear anything until he received a phone call shortly before he was taken with the 62nd overall pick, a call he admits he wasn’t expecting.
Bryant and Coates both took to Twitter moments after Smith-Schuster was taken, with Bryant tweeting “lol that’s Sammie Coates replacement not (mine) take it how you want to I am back” and Coates chiming in with laughter. Head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t amused, making a rare appearance on Twitter to tell them both to “play nice.” The tweets were subsequently deleted.
Pittsburgh added much needed secondary depth with the first of its two third-round picks, taking Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton with the 94th overall pick. Sutton had seven interceptions in four years with the Volunteers. He missed the first half of his senior season in 2016 with an ankle injury.
Sutton is the second defensive player in three picks by the Steelers. Pittsburgh took Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round on Thursday. The team will look for more help in the secondary and at linebacker during the final four rounds on Saturday.