When celebrities or athletes visit the hospital, patients often welcome the distraction from the pain of their illness and monotony of their treatments. But James Conner brings more. The Arizona Cardinals running back has been a vocal advocate for Phoenix Children’s both on and off the field. This is, in part, because he has “matching scars,” as he told a patient in 2022.

A game-changing diagnosis

Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in December 2015 as a 20-year-old redshirt junior at the University of Pittsburgh. While he had entered the season as the Division I university’s starting running back, he was on the injured list with a torn ligament at the time.

When his doctor gave him the news, he told Conner he was lucky: Given where the tumors were—around his heart—he could have died on the football field due to the pressure on his blood vessels. “My doctor said I had about a week, at the rate it was growing,” Conner says.

Conner continued participating in winter workouts while undergoing chemotherapy. His treatment paid off. Conner was declared cancer-free in May 2016 and went on not only to start for the Pittsburgh Panthers that fall, but also to post his second 1,000-yard season. In April 2017, just 13 months after going into remission, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him during the third round of the NFL draft.

As difficult as the experience was, Conner says he learned a lot about life during his experience with cancer.

“It taught me gratefulness, it taught me humbleness, and it taught me faith,” he says. “It taught me patience, not to have any fear and just keep going strong. It helped me with mental toughness. It helped allow me to enjoy the moment. That made football even more enjoyable for me, because I’m so grateful for it.”

Stepping up: on and off the field

Since joining the Cardinals in 2021, Conner has taken an active interest in supporting Phoenix Children’s. He selected Phoenix Children’s as his cause for the 2022 My Cause My Cleats campaign—an NFL initiative inviting players to represent an organization that’s important to them with custom-designed cleats worn during game play. These cleats are later sold at auction to support the player’s chosen organization.

“I’m inspired by all the work that Phoenix Children’s does changing lives, the camaraderie that they have and what they stand for,” he says. “It’s all about helping people out. I get inspired every time I go there.”

Off the field, Conner visits patients and offers star power when possible. In November 2022, he promoted Phoenix Children’s for GivingTuesday. The global initiative, which takes place the week after Thanksgiving each year, encourages people to make a difference in their community by donating to a nonprofit organization. Conner appeared in a TV commercial encouraging Arizonans to give to Phoenix Children’s on the big day. The Cardinals and Orangetheory Fitness tripled all 2022 donations, resulting in $460,228 in funds raised—a record-breaking year.

“I hope my support will bring awareness to the hospital and everything they do while showing that a positive impact is being made,” Conner says. “They put smiles on people’s faces, and I want everybody to recognize the great work that they do.”

Conner had fun with Phoenix Children's patients while filming a television commercial in 2022.

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