As players stretch on the field before games, Miami’s coaching staff wanders through their grid formation, offering words of encouragement.
Whether before or after the game, some will likely find a moment to shake James Conner‘s hand.
The story of how Conner, Pittsburgh’s senior running back, beat cancer and resumed a promising career, is known by Hurricanes players and coaches. They’ll do all they can to stifle him when the teams meet Saturday, but they will treat him with a healthy amount of respect.
“His story is certainly inspiring,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.
The 2014 ACC player of the year, Conner was rehabbing a season-ending torn MCL last December when a test revealed Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was declared cancer-free in May and now ranks fourth in the ACC in rushing yards (672) and third in touchdowns (10).
“It’s incredible what he’s done this year. He’s a tough dude,” UM defensive end Trent Harris said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 39.6 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes. Coach Mark Richt is familiar with those odds. His wife, Katharyn, successfully fought cervical cancer 10 years ago.
“When you hear somebody in your family has it, it just changes everything,” Richt said. “Your perspective on life does a 180. Anything that seemed important is probably not that important in comparison to the health of your spouse or even yourself.”
He hasn’t met C0nner, 21, but he’s about to become quite familiar.
Conner hasn’t faced Miami since 2014, when rushed for 1,765 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns. He gained 226 yards and four of those touchdowns in the season-finale against the Hurricanes, carrying 47 times. Pitt’s rushing attack, which ranks 25th nationally, involves heavy doses of Conner.
And those doses are indeed heavy. Conner, who is 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, punishes linebackers and secondaries if Pitt’s zone-blocking offensive line clears a lane for him.
“The way that he runs and runs through tackles, everyone on the football team is going to have to be in the mood to tackle him,” Diaz said. “He will find the guy that’s not and really punish you.”
Funny how that works. He did the same thing to cancer.
“From what I hear, his positive attitude towards attacking it — like great athletes do attack the offseason — was probably one of the greatest factors of him overcoming it,” Richt said. “Not only overcoming it, but here he is the big bruiser that he was before, and maybe even better.”