- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pittsburgh running back James Conner spent the last three months weighing whether to return next fall or head to the NFL after a torn knee ligament ended his junior season before it really began.

A stunning diagnosis made the decision for him.

The 2014 ACC Player of the Year announced Friday he is dealing with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma and will begin treatment next week.

“When I heard those words - you have cancer - I admit I was scared,” Conner said. “But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice. I choose to not fear cancer. I choose to fight it and I will win.”

The 20-year-old from Erie, Pennsylvania, was in the midst of a rigorous rehab - a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee sustained during a season-opening win over Youngstown State - when he started experiencing symptoms. His face would get puffy while working out and he became short of breath.

Tests revealed tumors in Conner’s head and chest. He received the diagnosis on Thanksgiving.

“When I tore my knee, I thought it was the worst thing ever,” Conner said. “That took a back seat.”

Dr. Stanley Marks said 80 percent to 85 percent of Hodgkin patients go on to make a full recovery. Several high-profile athletes have battled the lymph node disease during their careers and come back to play, including Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry and Pittsburgh Penguins star, current owner and hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

“Obviously (Conner) is in better shape than a lot of folks,” Marks said. “Hopefully he’s going to get through the therapy a lot easier. The cure rate is high in Hodgkin’s disease regardless (of age) … particularly in younger folks.”

Conner will start chemotherapy next week. Treatment is expected to last six months. While Conner will not be available to practice during that time, he will be allowed to remain physically active. When he’ll be ready to play again is uncertain, though Conner stressed the uncertainty is “when” and not “if.”

“I will play football again,” Conner said. “I will be at Heinz Field again. I have the best coaches and the teammates in the country.”

The bruising 6-foot-2, 230-pound Conner was expected to be a Heisman candidate this fall after rushing for 1,765 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns in 2014. He had 77 yards and two touchdowns in a little over a quarter against Youngstown State on Sept. 5 before he was injured following an awkward tackle. He had surgery four days later and served as a de facto assistant and mentor to replacements Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall among others while Pitt went 8-4 in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first season.

Conner called the injury a “temporary setback” at the time. He was considered a lock to go in the NFL draft next spring if he chose to leave school early. He called his diagnosis “a blessing in disguise.”

“When it’s all said and done, we’ll have a great story to tell,” Conner said.

One whose most important chapter is just starting.

“Cancer started the fight,” Narduzzi said. “James is going to finish it.”


AP College Football Website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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