Inside James Conner’s brave win over cancer, rise to Steelers star

Cancer picked a fight with the wrong kid.

“I actually went to his last chemo treatment. When he left that chemo room, when he walked out, I was walking behind him, it was almost like it struck me for the first time just how big and strong and tall he was. He didn’t look weak at all. I never saw him any stronger than that day.”

That was E.J. Borghetti, executive associate athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh and one of James Conner’s dear friends.

Borghetti was one of the insiders with a bird’s-eye’s view to Conner’s miracle run to daylight, armed as he was every step of the way with an iron will that turned fourth-and-long into first-and-goal, and finally the most triumphant touchdown anyone could ever score.

And look at Conner now … the young, strong, tough, 6-foot-1, 235-pound throwback running back who has 796 rushing yards, 45 receptions for 411 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns — who replaced Le’Veon Bell and saved the Steelers.

“It’s Hollywood, man,” Borghetti said. “Unheralded recruit becomes a first-team All-American, eclipses some records set by the great [U. of Pitt legend] Tony Dorsett, comes across major health challenges, beats that, and then goes on to play for the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Conner didn’t have much time to fear for his life once he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma on Thanksgiving weekend 2015, because he knew a fight for his life was suddenly at hand.

He was in the apartment he shared with former Pitt Panthers teammate and running back Rachid Ibrahim when the call came from the doctor.

“It is what they think it is,” Conner told Ibrahim.

They wouldn’t stop being teammates. Not now.

“We’re Googling stuff, we’re reading up on it,” Ibrahim said. “When you hear cancer, you think of some of the worst things out there, ’cause you see what people are going through.”

Local videographer Mike Gallagher’s son Sean was the quarterback of Conner’s McDowell High School team in Erie, Pa.

“I sat next to him in ‘Creed’ and … Rocky Balboa gets cancer, and at this point James knew,” Mike Gallagher said. “My son brought him back to school after the movie late at night. He called me from the car and told me, ‘Hey, I didn’t have the heart to tell you in person. But I got cancer.’ ”

After Conner informed his teammates and coaches in an emotional team meeting, it was time for the rest of the world to find out. A torn MCL had knocked him out of most of the 2015 season. This was a different animal. A press conference was organized.

“That morning, he was sitting in my office, and he said, ‘We’re gonna have a heckuva story to tell.’ Meaning, ‘This is gonna be a story of triumph. I’m not gonna lose this,’ ” Borghetti recalled.

The entire Pitt team was in attendance.

“That was really emotional,” Ibrahim said. “A lot of people were thinking, ‘Oh he’s about to declare for the draft,’ but little did they know he’s about to announce that he has cancer. I was one of the very few people in the room that knew already.”

Mike Gallagher knew, too, of course.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Gallagher said. “I’ve got radio talk-show guys messaging me before the news conference: ‘Come on, you and me are tight. Tell me he’s going to the league right?’ And some people were all speculating what he was doing, and I’m sitting and thinking, ‘They have no freakin clue. He’s about to tell the world he’s got cancer, and he’s got a fight for his life.’ ”

There would be 12 chemotherapy treatments.

“I’ll never forget his first chemo treatment,” Mike Gallagher said. “I went with his mom to bring him to chemo, we have him in the car, he had been home, we’re going back to Pittsburgh, and when you go into the city of Pittsburgh, around the bend on this highway, the city skyline just appears.

“On his way to his first chemo treatment, he pulls his phone out, he takes a picture of the city. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

And Conner replied: “I just love Pittsburgh. They’ve been so good to me. And now they’re gonna save me.’ ”

Conner promised Ibrahim he would win the fight, but there would be no early knockout.

“I would see him right after chemo. I’d come back and he’d still be exhausted. I would see the days where it would kind of wear him out and some days would be better than other days,” Ibrahim said.

There were bouts of nausea, and Conner shaved his head when he began losing hair.

“I think the image that anybody who was a part of that program at that time will always remember is during the team’s winter conditioning sessions, he’s going through chemo, but he refused to not be a part of that. He would be running around our indoor facility doing drills, catching passes, with a surgical mask on,” Borghetti said.

Borghetti was at a weekday Pirates game when his cell phone rang.

“I remember going down the escalator of PNC Park and seeing his number pop up,” Borghetti said. “And I knew that this was ‘the day.’ Saw his number, said a prayer to myself as I had done throughout the day anytime I thought about him. I said hello.”

Conner began: “Mr. B.”

“James, how you doing?” Borghetti asked.

And Conner said: “I’m good.

“I’m all clear.”

“He’s like, ‘How do you think I should announce this?’ ” Borghetti said. “James, I said, ‘Look, this is great news. I don’t think you need any formal press setting to announce it. You announce it as you see fit.”

Ibrahim learned by a chest photo text Conner sent him.

“He showed the before and after,” Ibrahim said.

Below were these words: “I’m cancer-free.”

Conner broke the news May 23, 2016, on Twitter: “God is AMAZING! Just got the call that my body is clean of cancer!! Been a long road but God had my back. Thanks everyone who said prayers!”

“News of him being cancer-free actually hit the scroll in Times Square!” Borghetti said.

Conner returned to his field of dreams on a tear-jerker Sept. 3, 2016, against Villanova, and he hasn’t looked back. He would rather be seen as a Steeler than as “the cancer kid.” His old publicist is so proud of him.

“A year ago, we had a surprise in our family in that my wife got pregnant,” Borghetti said. “We had a third son. He arrived with such speed that she barely got out of the car, we never even got out of triage. We sat there looking at each other and it was like, ‘Gosh, we haven’t even decided on a name yet.’ I said, ‘You know what? This young lad came with such speed and authority we’re gonna name him Conner.’

“That’s not just because he’s a great football player, which he is. It has more to do with when our Conner’s old enough, I want to be able to tell him, ‘We didn’t name you after a football player. We named you after an outstanding person who proved inspirational because of how he faced adversity in his life.’ ”

How can you not root for James Conner?

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