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Behind the scenes of an injured star player's rehab

PITTSBURGH -- James Conner takes the field wearing his familiar No. 24 jersey but stands off to the side, away from teammates who are starting warm-ups.

It is hard to reconcile the image: an idle Conner wearing a ski hat, not a helmet; wind pants, not football pants. He looks like he could suit up and bulldoze opponents the way he did with ease a year ago, but a knee injury has forced him to do what no player ever wants: Watch.

When Pittsburgh finally kicks off against North Carolina, Conner stands front and center on the sideline. Pitt has the ball first. When Qadree Ollison runs for a first down, Conner is right there to signal with his arm. The drive ends in a field goal. Conner huddles up with the offense, offering a few words for Ollison.

The rest of the game goes this way -- Conner standing front and center to watch the offense, then talking to teammates as they come off the field. Pitt ends up losing, but Conner is back in the facility early the next morning.

Every day, every workout, those are his games now.

What Conner is dealing with is not unique. In fact, it has become all too common this season, as a rash of injuries to star players has impacted the college football season. From Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire to Georgia running back Nick Chubb to Baylor quarterback Seth Russell and many others, 2015 has become the "year of the injury."

How do all these star players manage when football is taken from them? Conner, last season's ACC Player of the Year, peeled back the curtain to give us an inside look at his rehab and how he stays connected with his team.

"People don't see the behind-the-scenes work," Conner said. "We're engaged, but also working out really hard in the weight room every day, five days a week, pushing ourselves. We've got our music going. We're upper-body lifting, lower-body lifting, trying to get as healthy as possible to make a great return."

A year ago, Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns. In the offseason, he dropped weight and body fat while working to become a bigger threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. In July, he talked confidently about going for 2,000 yards and getting Pitt into the ACC championship game.

On his second carry of the second quarter in the season opener against Youngstown State, Conner ran for 9 yards. He turned the corner and tried to spin, but got hit on his leg. Immediately, Conner knew something was wrong, but he hopped off the field without any assistance from the training staff and went to the bench.

Doctors examined his right knee. They said it felt strong but they needed to do an MRI. Conner went home believing he would return in a few weeks. Coach Pat Narduzzi downplayed the injury, telling reporters Conner would be fine.

So imagine their collective shock when the MRI revealed a torn MCL. The tear happened in a spot that would make it impossible to play on it. Surgery would be the best way for Conner to return to 100 percent health. Conner broke down in tears.

"When you first get the news, it's horrible," Conner said. "The first time you're not on the field with the team, it's horrible. But after that, the show goes on. You can get down on yourself for a week or two but then it gets old, even to you. If you just bring a negative energy, it will affect people around you."

Conner was in a full leg brace with his knee completely locked. He had to shower at the team facility so trainers could cover the incision with a special waterproof bandage to avoid infection. He had to keep his leg elevated. Walking around the hilly Pitt campus was out of the question, so he did his schoolwork online.

But he had immediate support from roommate Rachid Ibrahim, a fellow running back who suffered a season-ending tear to his Achilles tendon in late August. He offered Conner words of advice that Pitt head athletic trainer Rob Blanc had given to him.

"[Blanc] basically kept it real with me and was like this is not going to be fun at all," Ibrahim said. "It's not going to be cool. It's the worst thing that can happen, but it's about how you attack it. That's what Rob tried to instill in me. The mindset you have going into it is how good you're going to be able to come back from it. That's what I tried to tell [Conner]."

He also helped out Conner around the house. Ibrahim had a scooter, so he could grab water, food or extra blankets while the two were laid up at home.

Imagine the sight in Week 2, with Pitt traveling to play Akron: the top two running backs on the team, watching helplessly on their couch with their legs immobilized.

"We're watching the game and just rooting them on, clapping for big plays, saying, 'Oh you should have gone there,' critiquing the guys, too," Conner said. "Both of us propped up, being cheerleaders."

Even though Conner could do nothing with his knee, he was in the training room beginning his rehab right after surgery. The exercises started off pretty basic, featuring leg raises and balance work. He also got electric stimulation to keep up the strength in his quads. Conner continued to do upper-body work while also keeping up the strength in his healthy leg.

The leg brace came off after two weeks. Conner transitioned to a smaller brace that fit around his knee and used crutches to get around. The biggest goal after the large brace came off was to relearn how to walk, an important component during rehab for ligament tears.

Because Conner did not lose much muscle size after the surgery, he was able to begin weight-bearing exercises earlier than usual. The athletic trainers work hand-in-hand with strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews to coordinate all the exercises for his injured knee, and the healthy parts of his body.

Routine MRIs are also part of the rehab plan to make sure Conner is healing properly. So is working on his mental health.

"It's great psychologically to get him involved with the team," said athletic trainer Tim Dunlavy, who coordinates Conner's rehab. "The guys love having him around. It's good for him to be around. You see where lots of times with these season-ending injuries you can get a lot of that, the depression of no longer being a part of the team. Coach Narduzzi has been great about making sure he's involved in meetings, he's still helping the young guys the way he did all summer."

Though Conner cannot sprint yet on dry land or make cuts, he has benefited from a new addition to the training room -- an anti-gravity treadmill that many more programs are using as part of the rehab process. Narduzzi requested the $90,000 machine when he arrived, having seen how well it worked at his previous stop, Michigan State.

Conner must suit up in special gear that fits around his hips and thighs. He then gets zipped into the machine, which allows him to run at less than his full body weight. During one recent rehab session, the 240-pound Conner ran at 120 pounds.

"It will make you run at 80 percent or 70 percent or 60 percent of your body weight to take pressure off [the legs], but you can still get your range of motion," Conner said. "It's a really good toy to use. It's one of the things helping me to get back."

On a typical day, Conner gets to the facility around 6 a.m. and does different stretching exercises to get his knee warmed up. He goes through team meetings and running backs meetings.

"James has really taken on the role of teaching us a lot and showing us a lot of things and being our eyes on the sideline, our eye in the sky and helping us with that a lot," Ollison said.

Then it is time for practice. Conner goes through warm-ups with the team. When drills begin, Conner goes into the facility to do his rehab and strength training exercises.

Squats are now a part of the routine, along with the single leg press and balance exercises. One in particular works on lateral movement. A band is attached to his upper thigh. A trainer pulls on the band, while somebody else throws a football to him to help him focus. Though the muscle and strength in his right leg have returned to their pre-injury level, his ligament is not yet fully healed. So there is a delicate balance that Conner understands: He can push hard, but not any harder than the trainers allow.

"That's where you need a kid like James to trust in our system and our athletic trainers and physicians to say we know what's best even though you feel great," Dunlavy said. "He's been great about doing only what we tell him to do. You get guys that think, 'I'm good, this feels just as strong and I'm squatting and doing all that. I'm going to cut a little bit in the dorms,' but he's been great. That's James. He's done everything right across the board."

Conner finishes up in time for the final few periods of practice, known as the "ACC" or "fourth quarter" portions of practice. He offers words of encouragement to his teammates. Then it's back into the facility to eat before heading off to class and returning in the evening for more rehab work and meetings.

To prepare for game days, he follows the same routine as everyone else. The night before, he boards the bus with teammates to the team hotel, where players have a team meal and go through meetings. There are more meetings the following morning, then lunch. Because the game against North Carolina didn't start until 7 p.m. ET, players had extra time on their hands. Mostly, they watched television or took naps before boarding the buses again for Heinz Field.

They will go through the entire pregame routine again Saturday, as Pitt (6-2) hosts No. 5 Notre Dame. There are four regular-season games and a bowl game left until Conner can hopefully get back on the field again.

But will that be in a Pitt uniform? Conner, a junior, has the option of declaring for the NFL draft once the season ends. He says the thought weighs on him, but he has not made a decision yet. There is a tough choice to be made. How much will his stock suffer because he missed the season? Does a drop even matter, considering the position he plays?

"I have to talk with my family, maybe look at some rankings to see where I stand, see if I'm healthy for the combine, there's a lot of major things," Conner said. "I'm just taking it day by day and seeing what the best decision is. If I enter, I want to make sure it's right. But my knee is my No. 1 concern right now, just trying to get that as healthy as possible."

Notre Dame has lost its share of players to season-ending injuries this year, between Zaire, Tarean Folston, Durham Smythe and Jarron Jones. Conner can relate to them all, each aching for their chance to play, determined to return as a healthier, better version of themselves.