PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Conner's lungs are clear. His focus, too.
Less than five months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, the Pittsburgh running back can see the finish line. The cancer is retreating. His strength is returning. The relentless optimism that has fueled his fight never in doubt.
"Things are falling into place now like before I even knew I had cancer," Conner said on Sunday after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the St. Louis Cardinals the 2016 Major League opener.
Conner's toss to Chris Stewart took a hop before landing in the catcher's glove as the black-clad sellout crowd at chilly PNC Park roared. The ever competitive 2014 ACC Player of the Year smacked his hands in faux frustration, the rare misstep during a journey that has thrust the 20-year-old into the unlikely role of inspirational figure. It's a job Conner didn't seek out but has hungrily accepted during his very public fight.
"I tell people they can do it and help people get through things and not complain about the little things," Conner said.
Including an out-of-nowhere bout with mortality. Conner was rehabbing from a torn ligament in his right knee sustained in the 2015 opener against Youngstown State when his sluggishness turned into a stunning diagnosis in late-November. A series of draining chemotherapy treatments followed, though they are down to a precious few. Conner said he has three more to go, the last coming on May 9, just four days past his 21st birthday. If the ensuing PET scan comes up clean, Conner believes he'll be plenty ready by the time the Panthers host Villanova on Sept. 3.
"Mindset was everything," Conner said. "The first treatment was scary not knowing what to expect and it beat me up a little bit but we've got a season coming up, so I don't have time. I know my teammates need me."
The support from the Erie, Pennsylvania's hometown has been overwhelming. Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux — who battled the same disease in 1993 — called. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, diagnosed in 2014 before returning to the Chiefs last season, texted.
Everywhere Conner looks there are signs of support, from teammates wearing "Conner Strong" rubber bracelets to thousands on social media who marvel at the way Conner has attacked something that can be so debilitating. Early in his treatment program he posted video of himself running full speed on a treadmill later in the same day. He's joined the Panthers during the majority of their spring drills, typically wearing a protective mask over his mouth to limit exposure to germs that could wreak havoc with his immune system.
"In the past, I've heard people say when they get chemo they're laying in bed all day," Conner said. "We've got a season coming up, I've got no time to be tired. With the treatment and the workout, I feel like I've accomplished something."
The Pirates donated $5,000 to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Conner's name and manager Clint Hurdle praised Conner for his "perseverance, his resiliency, his strength." Something the redshirt junior will continue to rely on as he prepares for the next step in a fight he never imagined taking but never doubted he would win.
"As soon as the doctors told me it was curable, I was like, 'OK, I'm good now,'" Conner said "There's a promise I made to myself to play at the highest level. I'm keeping (it)."
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