Erie legend of James Conner grows with every Steelers TD

PITTSBURGH -- The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, has beaches, prime fishing, serious snowfall every winter and three NFL cities -- Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo -- within a two-hour drive.

James Conner's hometown is looking like a hard Steelers lean right now, based on the black and gold No. 30 jerseys McDowell High School athletic director Mark Becker sees in his hallways.

"You see them all over the place," Becker said. "Everybody tries to claim him."

Locals have followed Conner's rise from three-star linebacker out of McDowell to his courageous fight against Hodgkin's lymphoma. Conner's star turn in his second NFL season has only deepened the intrigue -- and increased the mileage on odometers -- as fans travel to see their guy play.

Conner has become a must-watch, ranking second in the NFL behind Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley in both rushing yards with 706 and rushing touchdowns with nine.

The people of Erie have watched Conner dazzle at Pitt with 229 yards in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl after the 2013 season, become an All-American with 26 touchdowns as a sophomore, battle through a season-ending knee injury the following year and fight cancer, only to become the eighth running back taken in the 2017 draft.

His story resonates, as he has proved himself at every level.

Several McDowell teachers, some of whom taught Conner, either attended the season opener at Cleveland or drove to Heinz Field for a Steelers home game this year.

Mike Gallagher, a longtime photojournalist in Erie and a close family friend of Conner, said many locals have organized road trips via bus to watch Conner in person. Erie is technically a Buffalo TV market, but the Conner draw is powerful.

"Even people who despise the Steelers have to root for them because of James," Gallagher said. "Not that he wasn’t before, but he’s a god locally. If he was drafted by the Cowboys, he'd be a relatively new face. But he's not here."

Conner reciprocates the love. He said after his first start in Cleveland that he wanted to convert Browns or Bills fans. That day, Conner produced one of his four games with at least 100 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and a touchdown, an NFL record for a single season. Conner became the full-time starter when Le'Veon Bell decided to hold out over his $14.5 million franchise tag.

Conner doesn't get home much during the year but feels the Erie energy any time he checks a social media timeline stocked with well wishes or text messages from friends back home.

"It’s just awesome for my high school to have someone from there who’s trying to do big things. It’s special for me," said Conner, who does promotional work for Erie Insurance. "Whenever I'm on Facebook, I'll see a lot of people who came down and wore my jersey."

Going home can have its challenges. Though he always appreciates the support, Conner said he's not out in the open too much or "that'd [mean] a whole bunch of pictures and stuff."

Gallagher, whose son, Sean, is best friends with Conner, said he constantly gets asked when Conner is coming back.

"He still doesn't know what the big deal is," Gallagher said. "But he’s still so connected here -- he’s good to people, and he comes back home and it’s Conner everything for the people here."

Conner has learned to find a balance while remaining the same person.

"They know that when they see me, when I remember people I know from high school when I go back there, I show them a lot of love," Conner said. "It's just the same, old me. Just playing the game."

Despite a survival story that captured the hearts of college football fans, Conner made clear upon his arrival to Pittsburgh that he wanted to be known as a football player. The team made that same point clear when drafting him: This guy can play.

And now Conner's play is creating a whole new fan base in Erie.

"The students who might have been too young are now starting to recognize he went here, so that's been cool to see," Becker said. "James is such a great personality, he’s always been a humble kid, and everyone appreciates that."