Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer 487d

James Conner enjoying return to normalcy after beating cancer

The final, final step came June 1, when a quick procedure to remove the port in James Conner's chest unlocked the official return of the former ACC player of the year.

A few days of rest, and off came the physical restrictions -- and on came preparations for the 2016 season.

"There were four or five people holding him down out of anesthesia," family friend and mentor Mike Gallagher said, in an ever-appropriate analogy.

Nearly a month removed from the doctor's call that told him he was cancer-free, little now stands between Conner and his full return to the field for Pitt. His conditioning is a bit off -- 12 rounds of chemo and nine months without contact will do that to a man -- but his weight remains relatively unchanged, and he considers himself full-speed ahead as fall camp approaches in a little more than a month.

"I’m just trying to get my body back in shape, just running, trying to get my endurance, my wind back," Conner said by phone last week. "Just regular team workouts with our strength and conditioning coach, just trying to get back on little things and just work on my endurance."

Conner stayed visible after his Thanksgiving Day diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, attending spring practices -- often wearing a mask to stay germ-free -- but avoiding contact because of the port, through which he received chemotherapy.

His final treatment was May 9 and his cancer-free declaration came May 23, with the port removal coming nine days later.

Sandwiched around all that was an MCL tear that cost Conner nearly all of last season and even the removal of his wisdom teeth, a nearly year-long test of endurance that has led some around the Panthers program to joke that linebackers won't stand a chance against the bruising back once his speed rounds into form.

The cancer-free call was the most emotional moment of this rocky offseason, with Conner's mother, Kelly, in tears and with Conner equating the anticipation to that of the NFL draft. While the cancer diagnosis shelved those pro dreams for at least a year and forced Conner back to school -- he says he's on track to graduate next spring -- the redshirt junior became a flag-bearer of sorts for the public with how he approached his disease. He received letters from people such as Bill Clinton, appeared on "The Ellen Degeneres Show" and, last week, "facetimed" with Craig Sager before an NBA Finals game, sharing stories with the famed sportscaster who continues to carry a public battle with cancer himself.

Conner says he's regularly asked about the most touching wishes he's received, and each time he comes back to the inspiration from Kansas City Chiefs safety and fellow cancer-conquerer Eric Berry.

As for what Conner learned about himself through all this?

"The doctor tells you from the start you've got a good percentage of beating it, but nothing’s guaranteed in this business, things always can turn or something else," he said. "But you just learn to see how you’re stronger than what you think you are and you find people that really care about (you). You get stronger mentally, you just become a better person and a more positive personality once you say you finally beat it."

Conner has used the word comfortable to describe where he is right now, on the brink of fulfilling his Day 1 promise that he'd be ready for Pitt's opener. And he's comfortable with what that means to his ever-expanding following as the games -- and subsequent attention -- approach.

"No matter what, I always have a lot of cameras and eyes on me, and I’m fine with that," Conner said. "I’m locked in, I’m focused. I can’t take my eyes off my ultimate goal. Sometimes I’ll be in a position where people look at me as a role model and stuff; that’s what I like to do and that’s the type of person I am. I’m fine with that.”

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