During his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma, James Conner realized that there would be an opportunity for him to use his college football celebrity for good to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Now that Conner's body is cancer-free, his inspirational fight has become a celebratory story to share. On Friday night, Conner was honored by his oncologist, Dr. Stanley Marks, at an event that raised $400,000 for cancer research.
Marks told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Conner not only an received award given annually to one cancer patient, but that the three-decade old honor was renamed the James Conner Courage Award. Conner had a video and speech ready for the crowd of about 300, and the oncologist told the paper that the Panthers' star was "phenomenal" on an emotional night for everyone.
In addition to Conner the person, Marks also offered an analysis on Conner the football player.
"He's been working out like an animal," Marks said, via Jerry DiPaola. "He hardly ate anything at the dinner. His arms are just enormous, rock solid. He has really put on so much muscle since he started working out (after being declared cancer-free last month)."
Conner's battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma has been one of the most incredible stories of the 2015-16 offseason. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first weeks of 2015 then announced his cancer diagnosis in December. On that day, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi called Conner into his office to share a letter he received from a former player of his father, Youngstown State's Bill Narduzzi.
The former YSU player was also a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor and had received advice from Bill, battling the same disease at the time.
Narduzzi's father died from the disease in 1988 at the age of 51 but the Pitt coach passed on his father's advice to Conner through that letter.
"He called me into his office and we actually sat down and went through that letter," Conner said, recalling the day of his diagnosis announcement. "It's very unique that his dad, one of his players ... it's the same thing.
"It's crazy how life works."
Conner refused to alter his workout routine or goal of returning to the football field in the fall. Having just turned 21 in May, Conner balances the many demands of his life with a maturity that suggests he's been of age for years.
"Really, it's just time management, taking everything day by day," Conner told CBS Sports. "I knock a treatment out of the way, wait a couple days, and I'll be working out and stuff. It really hasn't been that difficult -- school, treatments and working out. If I get some free time, I like to come back to Erie."
Conner wore a mask while working out during the spring for protection as his treatments lowered his white blood cell count and made him more prone to getting ill. Outside of that mask and the no-contact rules, it resembled any other spring for Pitt's star running back as he eyes a return to the form that saw him run for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014.