UNCs Switzer, Pitts Conner share a bond more important than football

UNCs Ryan Switzer and Pitts James Conner prove that some things are more important than a football game, even one that could eventually determine the ACCs Coastal Division champion

Charles LeClaire—X02835
Sep 10

CHAPEL HILL — Some things are more important than a football game, even one that could eventually determine the ACC’s Coastal Division champion.That’s why Ryan Switzer chose to accessorize his Carolina blue uniform on Saturday with a purple band on his wrist and matching tape on his ankles. All the fashion choices serve as a heartfelt tribute to James Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year who returned to the field this season after overcoming both cancer and a serious knee injury.Switzer has been publicly showing his support for Conner since the Pittsburgh star was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last winter. He even went so far as to write the phrase “#ConnerStrong” on his shoes for the Tar Heels’ ACC Championship Game against Clemson.What made Saturday’s game different is that Conner wasn’t just a friend fighting adversity from afar. He was right there in the flesh at Kenan Stadium doing everything he could to help his Panthers beat Switzer’s Tar Heels.The outcome of the game, however, was only a minor detail compared to the inspiration Switzer has gained from Conner’s off-the-field battles.”I remember seeing him go from chemo then straight to workouts with a mask on his face and it really put things into perspective for me and my life,” Switzer said earlier this week. “Some of the things I was taking for granted, I certainly stopped. It was like a wakeup all for me in that as quick as you can feel like you’re on top of the world, you can be off the mountaintop. He’s done a great job of fighting back.”Switzer and Conner first met one another at a recruiting showcase in Pittsburgh during their senior year of high school.One was an undersized wide receiver from Charleston, W.Va., with a knack for making big plays while the other was a bruising running back from Erie, Pa, already known for his relentlessness and physicality.Although they had little in common, they impressed one another with the way they took advantage of their individual skill sets.Their mutual respect for one another only grew the following year when when Switzer ran two punts back for touchdowns and Conner rushed for 102 yards and a score in UNC’s 34-27 win at Pitt in 2013. The two exchanged contact information on the field after the game and have stayed in touch ever since.”He’s one of my better friends,” Conner said. “We talk on social media and text message all the time. Those camps are helpful for making friendships.”Mostly, they talked about football and their dreams for the future while commiserating with one another about the difficulties of juggling their budding athletic careers with life as full-time students.The conversations took on a much more serious tone after Conner suffered a season-ending MCL tear in Pitt’s season opener against Youngstown State last September. They became even more substantive when in the process of rehabbing from the injury, the seemingly fit young athlete was diagnosed with cancer.Switzer immediately became one of Conner’s biggest advocates, lending moral support both directly to his friend and indirectly by constantly wearing one of the Panther running back’s purple wristbands emblazoned with the slogan “Fear is a Choice.””I did my best to stay on top of things,” Switzer said, “making sure he knew he had a friend in his corner.”Conner said that the love and support he got from friends such as Switzer was a major factor in his ability to overcome the odds, recover from the injury, beat cancer and return to action so quickly.Despite all he’s been through, he appears to have picked right up where he left off in 2014, when he rushed for 1,765 yards and scored an ACC record 26 touchdowns.”He’s a dangerous back and he’s huge,” UNC’s own top rusher Elijah Hood said of the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Conner. “Guys that big don’t move that fast. The kind of determination he has to overcome the things he’s overcome — to shove that off his back and get back on the field the next year, what kind of monster is this guy?”He’s the kind of monster who, despite appearances, realizes his limitations coming off two serious medical obstacles.”I just go as hard as I can every play I can,” he said. “If I feel like I can’t give the team everything I’ve got, that’s hurting the team. So I try to be smart with it.”So far, things have worked out for the best.Conner topped the 100-yard mark in two of his first three games leading up to Saturday’s Coastal Division showdown with UNC. He’s also added a new dimension to his repertoire by becoming a more effective receiver out of the backfield in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s attack.”Now it’s pretty much normal,” Switzer said. “We played at night [against Indiana] when they played Penn State, so I was able to watch his whole game. He doesn’t look like he’s missed a beat. Obviously [the cancer] is something he’s going to continue to fight. It’s something we pray doesn’t come back. But regardless of what happens, I know James will be ready to face it.”