Merril Hoge believes James Conner could contribute to Steelers early
Merril Hoge was supposed to be doing the uplifting, but the ESPN analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers fullback said when he got James Conner on the phone for the first time, he was the one drawing inspiration.
Bad news brought them together.
Hoge, who attended Tuesday’s Mid Penn Bank Celebrity Golf Tournament benefit dinner to help raise money for the Pa. Breast Cancer Coalition, is a survivor of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
And Conner, Pitt’s standout running back who the Steelers took with their third-round pick this year — had just been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Hoge said the two shared an oncologist — Dr. Stanley Marks.
“(Marks) asked if I’d reach out, and share with (Conner) the journey,” Hoge said.
“There’s a lot of uncertainties and fears, so I reached out to him, and I’ll tell you this, our conversation was inspiring and powerful. Before I hung up, I said, ‘James, you have the right mindset.'”
Hoge said Conner was unwavering.
“He was going to whip it,” he said. “He was always focused on beating it. I hung up more inspired than he was.”
The prospect of a relapse — Conner has been cancer free for a year — lingers, but Hodge said he’s confident the Steelers made a great pick.
“If you watched him play last season, in his first game versus his last game, it looked like two different people,” Hoge said. “He just had the same jersey on. But I know from experience that chemotherapy works in seconds, but it doesn’t leave your body in seconds. It can take almost a year for your body to completely recover.
“What you were seeing (at the end of the season) was just the start of who he really is. It’s not what you saw all year because he was still dealing with the total recovery process.
“The Steelers are getting a heckuva football player.”
And, with Le’Veon Bell’s history of usage and injury, Hoge believes Conner will have the opportunities to show he continued progressing.
“He’s a thumper,” Hoge said. “He shocks the box. You can give it to him 25 times per game, and he’s going to keep you on schedule. And, you can trust him. You can’t ask for anything more than that.
“He has fabulous feet. He’s a big back. He’s the type of back you need. With the Steelers, I didn’t see him going there, but I understand why he went there, and I can see, with Le’Veon Bell, you can’t keep giving him 365 touches, and he hasn’t played an entire year yet.
“You need two (backs), and he has a chance to contribute.”