PITTSBURGH — Almost exactly nine months to the day he told his Pittsburgh teammates he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, James Conner — now cancer-free — took the field to thunderous applause.
Conner's mother, Kelly Patterson, cried when her son ran out onto the field.
"It's unbelievable," she told USA TODAY Sports moments later. "It's like the first day of the rest of his life."
Conner, 21, was named the Panthers' starting running back just three months removed from his final PET scan, which declared him cancer-free on May 23. He took the field for the first time since last year's season-opener against Youngstown State; he suffered a season-ending knee injury in that game.
The knee injury — which devastated Conner and his immediate NFL dreams at the time — turned out to be a blessing, Conner says now.
As he rehabbed the knee and lifted in the weight room, Conner noticed he'd get out of breath quickly. His face was swelling up. He grew dizzy, and had trouble sleeping.
Antibiotics didn't help, and doctors weren't sure what was wrong. Eventually, an ear, nose and throat doctor ruled out any issues with Conner's sinuses and then ordered an X-ray on his chest, which then led to a PET scan and the discovery of a large tumor.
"You've got two veins; one carries blood directly to the body, one carries blood to the heart," Conner told USA TODAY Sports in June. "That tumor was growing and was pressing on that vein. That vein was getting skinnier and skinnier.
“If I never had this knee injury I would've been on the field and I probably would've been feeling out of shape and that I’ve got to work even harder. I’d be taking shots to the chest. I could've died on the field. I’m very thankful for my knee injury — I know He did that to save my life. ... He didn't want to harm me when He did my knee injury. He did it to save me."
Twelve chemotherapy treatments came next, each more difficult and debilitating than the last, and each with his mother by his side. At first, Conner sat in a common area with other cancer patients so he could talk to others and inspire them with their fights. By the mid-point, the sixth chemo treatment, Conner had to stay in a private area because he'd grown too nauseous.
Still, Conner fought to regain control of his body. He never lost his hair (though it thinned out) or his frame, though it didn't look quite like the 6-2, 235-pound build he's got now. But Conner worked out, even running on the treadmill the day after treatments in a surgical mask, because he didn't want to lose the ACC Player of the Year form he'd had a year earlier. And, besides, his doctor told him it could help his recovery.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was among those amazed at Conner's speed and agility during spring football's noncontact play. And then, once Conner got the all-clear on his final scan in May, he continued to astound his coach and teammates with both his work ethic and his determination on the field.
By fall camp, it became clear that Conner's ultimate goal — running out of the tunnel alongside his teammates for Pitt's opener against Villanova on Saturday — would become reality.
It was the moment he'd been waiting for, the moment that kept him going during those painful treatments all winter and spring.
And it was beautiful.
Patterson wasn't sure exactly how many friends and family members had made it to the game — at least 300 with student tickets, at least a hundred more from Conner's hometown of Erie, and at least 50 family members. About 15 members of the medical staff at the hospital that treated Conner also made the trip, as well as his doctor, and donned surgical masks to highlight that part of Conner's process.
"It's fantastic," Patterson said as her son, one of Pitt's captains, waited for the pregame coin toss. "Just to see him standing there, healthy and strong and back to where he was, it's just amazing."
The crowd roared each time Conner touched the ball in the first quarter, and it cheered even louder midway through the second quarter when Conner ran the ball in from the 3-yard line for a touchdown, Pitt's first score of the game. He was mobbed by teammates as he celebrated.
"That first touchdown couldn't have been any better — a stiff-arm into the end zone," quarterback Nathan Peterman said later, smiling. "Everyone is ecstatic for him."
In the end, Pittsburgh beat Villanova 28-7. Conner carried the ball 17 times for 53 yards and one rushing touchdown. He also had a nine-yard touchdown reception.
"It's amazing what he's done, with the knee injury, the Hodgkin's," Narduzzi told USA TODAY Sports after the game. "The kid is an incredible kid."
Soon, he'll be back to being an incredible football player again, too. After the game, Conner nitpicked his own performance and tried to downplay the significance of his own return as he highlighted his teammates.
Besides, as Narduzzi explained it, Saturday wasn't the first day Conner truly returned to the sport he loved. There were those reps in spring ball, and those full-contact hits in fall camp. To the Panthers, he's been back to being his old self for some time.
And it's felt that way to Conner, too.
"I know it was a 'comeback' game, but it's felt like regular football since (fall) camp," Conner said. "My battle was already won, beating cancer. Everything else is just a bonus and a reward."