JuJu Smith-Schuster is in his 4th year in the NFL. At just 24 years old, he has become one of the league’s most recognizable personalities. On the field, he is the youngest player to ever reach 2,500 career receiving yards and is the first player to have two offensive touchdowns of 97 yards or more. Off the field, he is known for his social media presence and love for dancing and video games. Not to be lost in all of this is his philanthropic work. The JuJu Foundation was established in 2019 with a mission of supporting youth initiatives and lifting the spirits of those in need. He has kept his name out of any negative headlines and seems grounded by a strong family presence.
Despite all this, JuJu is one of the more polarizing athletes in the league. Could anyone really have an issue with the young man? The answer is yes, and the question is “Why?”
Love him or hate him
I used the word polarizing to describe JuJu and I don’t think there is a better word to do so. There are people that love him, people that can’t stand him, and very few people who are indifferent. Some see him as a key piece to one of the best organizations in sports. A guy who just loves to have fun, but come game day will bring the hard hat and lunch pail and put it all on the line. Some see him as somebody who only cares about his off the field marketing endeavors and just happens to play football on the side. The latter of these opinions seems quite ridiculous to me, so you can tell where I side on this argument.
JuJu is one of seven children (only one sibling is biological) and didn’t have an easy life growing up. His biological father wasn’t present in his life. Fortunately for him, his step father came into the picture when he was four years old. That is where the hyphenated last name comes from. He added Schuster for the man he calls “Dad”.
The whole family shared one car and in their household sharing was a commonplace. The children shared rooms, clothing, etc…but they made it work. With larger goals for JuJu in mind, they rallied around his football playing career and never looked back. His upbringing produces the chip on his shoulder and a bigger picture in his mind; two valuable assets on and off the field.
Amateur playing career
JuJu was a five-star recruit out of Long Beach Poly in Long Beach, California. A school known for churning out NFL talent, JuJu is part of one of the elite pipelines. He had originally planned to attend the University of Oregon, before committing to playing for Steve Sarkisian at USC.
Smith-Schuster earned immediate playing time as a true freshman in 2014. He finished the 2014 season with 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2015, Smith-Schuster played 14 games and put up 1,454 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. As a junior in 2016, the Trojans used Smith-Schuster less. He played in 13 games, accounting for 914 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He also helped the Trojans to a victory in the Rose Bowl over Penn State that year, catching seven passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
After the 2016 season, Smith-Schuster announced on Twitter that he would forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft. Fellow USC alum and former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swan said of Smith-Schuster’s pro-potential, “He’s got the size. He’s got the strength. In JuJu, you’ve got a guy who’s got the kind of versatility you might be looking for.” Though he left before graduation, Smith-Schuster returned to take summer courses at USC to finish his degree.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. For a team already boasting a high powered offense, the move was somewhat of a luxury. It paid immediate dividends, however.
JuJu was eased into a prominent role. He made history in a Week 7 win over Cincinnati by becoming the first player to score three TDs before turning 21 years old. In a rematch with Cincinnati, he threw a block on linebacker Vontaze Burfict that is still talked about to this day. This moment is the on-field moment that elevated JuJu Smith-Schuster’s persona to another level. He finished his rookie year with 58 receptions, 917 yards and 7 TDs.
JuJu broke out in 2018. He made the Pro Bowl and was named the Steelers’ team MVP. He had 111 receptions, 1,426 yards and 7 TDs. After a disappointing 2019 season due to injuries not only to himself, but also a season-ending injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he has bounced back nicely in 2020, already surpassing his 2019 output.
JuJu has blown up on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok in 2020. JuJu is very smart. He knows football isn’t going to last forever and has created other avenues for himself in terms of exposure and monetization. He has described these tactics as a desire to put his face out there and connect with people, since all you see is a number and a helmet when he’s on the field. Juju wants people to know who he is off the field as well.
Not everyone is a fan of it. He has drawn a lot of criticism for his “antics”, with people saying he needs to shift all of his focus to football. I’ve always found that notion to be hypocritical. At the end of the day, people are holding these guys to a standard they don’t hold themselves to. Whenever they get done at work, the time is theirs to spend as they please. Why should this be any different for professional athletes? Most of them hold themselves to a high enough standard and spend their time off the field perfecting their craft anyways. Nothing is more evident of that than JuJu’s body transformation since entering the league. The dude has put the work in and has added a good amount of muscle to his frame. JuJu is as professional as they come.
What’s next for JuJu?
Due a new contract following this season, his future may or may not be in Pittsburgh. I truthfully feel like it’s uncertain at this point. What I am certain about is that wherever JuJu Smith-Schuster’s future may be, that team and city is getting a hard-working, family-oriented, fun-loving, charitable, and charismatic player and person. He’s closest thing Pittsburgh has seen to Hines Ward on the field and the farthest thing from him off it.
I would love for him to remain in Pittsburgh. JuJu has recently said he doesn’t plan to change anything he’s doing (including pregame dances on logos at midfield). You can call him annoying, corny, or whatever adjective you want, but you can’t deny his passion or work ethic once he straps on the black and gold. For better or worse, he is who he is. With JuJu Smith-Schuster, you have to take the whole package.
JuJu will always be JuJu. We need to accept that.
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