It’s hard to imagine a guy weighing 250 pounds and standing at 6-foot-2 being scared of anything, especially when that guy was one of the best running backs in college football. In his two plus seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, James Conner rushed for 2,641 yards and 36 touchdowns.
At the time, like most young men his age, he seemed invincible as he ran over would-be-tacklers with ease, sometimes using his forearm to smash them in the ground.
“Trying to bring me down was like trying to tackle a linebacker, and when I was locked in, no one was going to tackle me,” Conner told The Pittsburgh Tribune last July. “No one. If I saw a defender in my way, I was lowering my shoulder, and it was not gonna be fun for the other guy. Sometimes I would just look at defenders like, ‘Come on … you literally have no chance of tackling me.’
“I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element.”
However, something was about to stop Conner, and it was going to run over him like he runs over defensive backs.
The college football world was actually his to take as he entered the 2015 season, but before it could even get started, Conner’s season was over. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year tore his ACL in Pitt’s season-opener against Youngstown State and he was out for the year.
It was the kind of news that is devastating for any young athlete to hear, but in the grand scheme of things this was the softest blow to Conner’s academic year. On December 4, 2015, Conner announced he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. A week later he began his chemotherapy regimen.
Over the next 11 weeks, Conner went through a process that had many ups and downs, and the downs seemed to come with more regularity than the ups. Unless one has gone through it, it’s hard it understand exactly what the football star was going through.
There was one guy, who could relate.
After reading about Conner’s diagnoses, former Clemson pitcher Clate Schmidt reached out to Conner on Instagram. But it was not just one athlete wishing another athlete well and telling him to stay strong. No, Schmidt had lived through what Conner was about to go through. He wanted to offer him his wisdom and knowledge.
In May of 2015, Schmidt was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Clate reached out to me on Instagram and offered his support. We ended up texting all night, and he gave me a bunch of tips on the process. He’s been amazing,” Conner said.
Schmidt was the inspiration Conner not only needed then, but through the whole process. The pitcher had proven, just because you have been diagnosed with cancer does not mean you have to give up.
After an intense three-month fight, which included chemo and radiation treatment, Schmidt’s cancer went into remission. He was back on the baseball field by the end of August conditioning with his Clemson teammates. By January he was almost 100 percent, and by mid-February he was the Tigers’ starting pitcher on opening day.
By the end of the season, Schmidt helped Clemson win its first ACC Championship in 10 years and earn the No. 7 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Schmidt was just the medicine Conner was going to need. But he was more than just an inspiration. He became a guy the running back could lean on, especially during the rough times because Schmidt knew what Conner was going through.
In an article Conner wrote for The Tribune called, “Nothing is Guaranteed,” Conner describes a key moment in his chemotherapy where Schmidt’s knowledge of the process came in handy.
“One of the first things he told me was to make sure that the nurses gave me some numbing cream before they punctured my chest with that needle. So when I got in there, they went to access the port, and … nothing. No numbing cream. They were just going to go for it,” Conner said.
“I was like, ‘Wait, hold on, hold on, hold on, I heard something about this cream that helps with the pain.’
“The nurses laughed about that a little bit — the tough guy football player asking for some numbing cream. But they got it for me. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to work, so I was just chilling on my phone, and I ended up reading a Sports Illustrated they had in the room. The crazy thing is, even with the cream, that needle still hurt — you could still feel a sharp pain. You can tell something pretty thick is jabbing into your chest.
“So, clearly, Clate is the man. Without that cream, it would’ve been way worse. I can only imagine.”
After his 11-weel treatment, Conner’s cancer went into remission, but his friendship with Schmidt is still going on strong. The two talk at least once a week as they try to catch up with each other’s lives.
Schmidt is back in his hometown of Atlanta as he preps for the upcoming baseball season. The former Clemson pitcher signed with Detroit Tigers last June after being drafted in the 20th round. Conner is in the middle of the football season, and once again is leading his Pitt Panthers in rushing with 712 yards and 11 touchdowns through nine games.
“He has had an incredible season so far,” Schmidt said. “His character, his grit and his determination shows through in everything he does. He is truly an inspiration to so many people, including myself. God has touched us with his with his heart, and has given us this opportunity to inspire others, who are going through the same things we went through, to keep fighting.”
It’s hard to imagine, but as close as Schmidt and Conner are, they have never met face to face. On Saturday, when Conner’s Panthers come to Death Valley to take on No. 2 Clemson, the two plan on meeting on Frank Howard Field prior to the Panthers’ warming up.
After the meeting, Schmidt plans to stay and watch the game. A huge Clemson football fan, Schmidt will be rooting for his Tigers, “but every time he touches the ball, I want to see him do well. He knows where my heart is. He knows I’ll be pulling for Clemson, but he knows I’m pulling for him, too.”
Schmidt has been pulling for Conner since last December, and that is something that’s never going to change.
“We know what each other has been through. When you have gone through and experienced what we have experienced, through all the chemo and all the other things, it’s a bond that brings you together,” Schmidt said. “It’s something that engulfs your life and only those that have gone through it can fully understand what it is. That’s the next level. That’s what brings us together. That’s the brotherhood we are in.
“Now as we go forward, and as we try to accomplish all that we want to accomplish, we know that we are there for each other. We have each other’s backs.”
—Lead photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports