DALLAS (FWAA) Pittsburgh running back
James Conner is the winner of the 2016
Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. Conner, a 6-foot-2,
235-pound redshirt junior, became a beacon of strength throughout
the sports world this fall, as he posted an all-conference season
for the Panthers after beating Hodgkin lymphoma this past spring.
"During the season, it's just one day at a time, but now that
the regular-season's over I can look back and it's been a fun journey,"
Conner said of his whirlwind 2016. "Looking back now, it's pretty
Pitt had called a press conference for Conner on Dec. 4, 2015,
after a regular season that saw the 2014 ACC player of the year
sidelined much of the way because of an MCL tear suffered in Week
1. Media members figured that Conner would be announcing a decision
on whether or not to declare for the NFL draft, but instead, he
told the world of his harrowing diagnosis, famously saying: "When
I heard those wordsYou have cancer'I admit I was scared. But
after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice.
I choose to not fear cancer. I choose to fight it and I will win."
Conner vowed to return to Heinz Field again. He went through
12 rounds of chemotherapy, until May 9. During that time, he often
practiced with teammates in non-contact spring drills, wowing the
world as he worked out while wearing a surgical mask to guard against
germs. He emerged as a national figure, throwing out the first pitch
on Opening Day at the Pittsburgh Pirates game and appearing on "The
Ellen DeGeneres Show," where he was greeted with a surprise appearance
from NFL safety Eric Berry, who had beaten Hodgkin lymphoma himself
one year earlier.
At last, on May 23, Conner announced that he was cancer-free.
"For as many people as James has inspired through his play on
the field, that number pales in comparison to the countless others
who were touched by his courage and strength in defeating cancer,"
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "James' example has encouraged so
many people to keep fighting through their own personal challenges.
For as decorated a football player as he is, the hope and inspiration
he has given others will be his greatest legacy.
"I will always marvel at how a year ago James was just beginning
his fight against cancer. Today, he not only stands victorious over
this disease but is also a 1,000-yard rusher and All-ACC running
back. James is a very fitting recipient of this honor and everyone
at Pitt is incredibly proud to call him one of our own."
Conner wasted no time delivering on his earlier vow to suit up
for Pitt again, as he scored two touchdowns in the Panthers' season-opening
win over Villanova. He reached the end zone two more times a week
later in a win over rival Penn State, and he never really slowed
By the end of the season, Conner had earned first-team All-ACC
honors from both the coaches and media, having rushed for 1,060
yards and 16 touchdowns on 208 carries (5.1 ypc). He eclipsed the
100-yard rushing mark in six different games. Additionally, he caught
20 passes for 299 yards and four more touchdowns after entering
the season with just nine career catches.
Conner set ACC records for career rushing touchdowns (52) and
career total touchdowns (56). And, just for good measure, he also
saw a few snaps this season at defensive end, which he was initially
recruited to play out of Erie-McDowell High School.
At a program that has featured running backs who have won the
Heisman Trophy (Tony Dorsett), who have made the Pro Football Hall
of Fame (Dorsett, Curtis Martin) and who have won the NFL's rushing
title (Martin, LeSean McCoy), Conner has more than left his mark:
He ranks second in school history in rushing yards (3,701), total
touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, trailing only Dorsett in each
Conner announced his intentions to declare for the draft on Dec.
10, the latest news in what has been a busy couple of weeks for
the future pro. In addition to the Orange Bowl Courage Award, Conner
has been honored with the Disney Sports Spirit Award and the ACC's
Brian Piccolo Award, which is given to the league's most courageous
player. After being introduced in Atlanta by Holly Rowe and Shelley
Smith a pair of ESPN broadcasters who have waged their own battles
against cancer Conner gave an emotional speech upon accepting
the Disney award, dedicating the honor to everybody else fighting
their own battles.
"Holly talked about how I inspired her to get up," Conner said.
"It was a good event. There was a standing ovation. Just looking
back on the year, seeing the video again, all the emotions just
hit you at once."
Conner has been active in the community, regularly speaking to
sick kids and even thanking God for choosing him for this position,
which has allowed him to inspire and motivate people across the
"It's definitely a good position to be in," Conner said. "It's
powerful, so I just take it all in and try to do what I can."
Conner will close his college career with Pitt against Northwestern
in the Dec. 28 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York.
The 8-4 Panthers will look to build off a season that featured wins
over the Nos. 2 (Clemson) and 5 (Penn State) teams in the country.
"It's hard to pinpoint," Conner said of the season's top highlight.
"But really, just getting back to the field, obviously that was
the most important thing. And of course there were big wins, so
it's hard to categorize."
The Courage Award was first presented by the Football Writers
Association of America (FWAA) in 2002. A select group of writers
from the FWAA vote on the winner each year. The requirements for
nomination include displaying courage on or off the field, including
overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster
or living through hardship. James Conner will be included in festivities
during Capital One Orange Bowl week and receive his trophy at an
on-field presentation during the Capital One Orange Bowl game between
No. 6 Michigan and No. 11 Florida State on Dec. 30.
Previous winners of the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage
Award are Miami offensive lineman Hunter Knighton (2015), Duke offensive
lineman Laken Tomlinson (2014), San Jose State defensive lineman
Anthony Larceval (2013), Clemson wide receiver Daniel Rodriguez
(2012), Michigan State offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr. (2011),
Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand (2010), the University of
Connecticut football team (2009), Tulsa's Wilson Holloway (2008),
Navy's Zerbin Singleton (2007), Clemson's Ray Ray McElrathbey (2006),
the Tulane football team (2005), Memphis' Haracio Colen (2004),
San Jose State's Neil Parry (2003) and Toledo's William Bratton
About the Orange Bowl
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Bowl community outreach efforts are comprised of four pillars: youth
sports, fundraising and community events, academic programs and
scholarships, and legacy gifts. The Orange Bowl features a year-round
schedule of events culminating with the Capital One Orange Bowl
on December 30, 2016. For more information on the 2016-17 Orange
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Founded in 1941, the Football Writers Association of America consists of 1,400 men and women who cover college football.
The membership includes journalists, broadcasters and publicists, as well as key
executives in all the areas that involve the game. The FWAA works to govern areas
that include game-day operations, major awards and its annual All-America team.
For more information about the FWAA and its award programs, contact Steve Richardson
Editor's note: To download a print-quality photo
of James Conner, click on the photo within the release.
2016 Orange Bowl Courage Award Nominees
Sept. 14: James Conner, Pittsburgh
Sept. 21: Caylin Moore, TCU
Sept. 28: Riley Sorenson, Washington State
Oct. 5: Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State
Oct. 12: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
Oct. 19: Mulbah Car, Houston
Oct. 26: Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea, Hawaii
Nov. 2: Shaquem Griffin, UCF
Nov. 9: Tim White, Arizona State
Nov. 16: Adam Ploudre, Missouri
Nov. 23: Mike Sherels, Minnesota
Dec. 1: Quinton Flowers, USF
One Orange Bowl Courage Award