For the first time in his career, James Conner will be playing football without a Pennsylvania address.
Conner, an Erie native and graduate of McDowell High School in the northwestern corner of the state, spent four years at the University of Pittsburgh and then four more with the Pittsburgh Steelers, spending eight years playing at Heinz Field on Saturdays and then Sundays.
Now, he’s going across the country, to play for the Arizona Cardinals, and while the departure from his Western Pennsylvania roots will be a drastic one, it’s a change he feels he’s ready to make.
“I just felt, right place, right time, the opportunity to come here and just contribute to something that I believe is on the rise and is going great,” Conner said in his introductory press conference with members of the Arizona media on Tuesday.
“I feel brand new. I’m excited for the opportunity. It’s definitely a change of scenery for me, being in Pittsburgh for eight years. I was learning so many lessons. That time in Pittsburgh was just prepping me for where I’m at right now in my life and this journey that brought me out here to AZ.”
Conner knew that the writing was on the wall about his future in Pittsburgh after he hit free agency without a new contract, and said he was ready for, and in some ways looking forward to the change.
“Not really a desire to leave, but some people talk about just being in their hometown, and I really felt like there was an opportunity for me to grow,” Conner said. “To be out here, to meet new people, to see this side of the world, it’s something new and I was looking forward to that.”
Feel brand new and blessed !
— James Conner (@JamesConner_) April 13, 2021
But he showed a specific appreciation for the fans that have stuck with him through 12 years of Western Pennsylvania football.
“No one more grateful for the city of Pittsburgh than me,” Conner wrote in a thank-you on social media. “The last eight years been building me into the man I am today. Excited for what’s ahead but truly thankful for all the love and support during my best moments and most difficult times.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Though Conner will be venturing outside Western Pennsylvania as a home for the first time, he won’t be lacking for familiar faces. He’ll be joined in Arizona by former Pitt punter Andy Lee and while fellow former Panther Larry Fitzgerald remains undecided about his future, it’s safe to say he’ll be around one way or another.
The coaching staff is also full of familiar faces, with former Pitt graduate assistant Spencer Whipple the assistant wide receivers coach, former Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler the offensive line coach and run game coordinator, former Steelers defensive lineman Brenston Buckner is the defensive line coach, former Pitt strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris has that role in Arizona and former Steelers running backs coach James Saxton will once again be Conner’s position coach.
“It was awesome to link back up with Coach Sax,” Conner said. “He was always more than a coach to me, he was always about the person. He talked about what he expected, put it all up front. We have history together and they already have a great running back room. I’m just looking to add to it.”
Conner has been dogged by minor injuries during his pro career, and another popped up this offseason, as he needed surgery for a turf toe-like injury suffered during an ATV accident, but Conner said the procedure was minor and he expects to be ready to start training camp.
“Just a little accident happened and a little toe issue,” he said. “Thankfully, it was not as serious a whole turf toe injury. So, I just had to get it addressed, had to get it fixed, but I’m healing up well.”