This story appears in the Sept. 9, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
It’s a weekday March morning in a Portland warehouse, a deep-post route from the Willamette’s waters, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is running around in a pair of specially sensorized, size-14 turf cleats, allowing a team of Adidas technicians to study the way his feet interact with the field turf when he sprints and changes direction. The technology is called Aramis, and because it is new and because the images it produces on the nearby monitor are both colorful and insightful, the 22-year-old Steelers receiver is interested in it. He doesn’t just examine the infrared pictures of his soles—the arches black, the toes orange with activity—he also needs to know how the images were made and transmitted.
During a break Smith-Schuster spies a row of used sports equipment. He spins a rugby ball across the room with the technique and accuracy of an All Blacks veteran. He juggles a soccer ball like a 6' 1", 215-pound Messi—10 touches in a row, 20—before booting a laser toward a mini-goal 30 yards away. When it ripples the net, he pulls his shirt off and runs around the room shouting, “Let’s goooooo!” The shoe people who have never experienced Smith-Schuster in person wear surprised yet approving smiles.
Before the session is over, he’ll play with every ball and racket in the room—except for the one lying alone under the fluorescent lights. As the youngest NFL player to surpass 1,500 career receiving yards, coming off a 111-catch season, he’s got a decent grasp on football already.
When the Aramis test resumes, the song playing is “Sicko Mode,” by Travis Scott, whose music—slow and syrupy, then caffeinated and quick—is a match for Smith-Schuster, who can spend one day glued to his PS4 and the next training like an Olympic sprinter. The third-year wideout with the running back’s body, lumpy high-top fade and imperfectly perfect grin is younger than most of Pittsburgh’s 2019 draft picks, but his exuberance and football chops only partly explain why, according to the sponsorship analytics firm Hookit, only one other athlete under 25, French soccer star Kylian Mbappé, garnered more global social media interactions during the 2018 NFL season than Smith-Schuster’s 29 million. The biggest reason for his popularity: a pure, abiding love of human connection. If there’s a kid around Smith-Schuster has to play; if there’s an elderly person in the room he has to engage; if there’s a game nearby he must participate. Not because he benefits from recording these interpersonal moments and broadcasting them on his social media and YouTube accounts, but because for him they are an imperative, like breathing.
Smith-Schuster’s eclectic blend of personal attributes, and their appeal to shoe buyers, land him, once the Aramis test is over, at a brainstorming meeting in an upper-floor workspace at the Adidas complex, where he sits surrounded by a dozen creatives, including a cameraman there to record him for posterity (and promotional purposes). It would be cool to design a shoe with a bicycle theme, he suggests. They know that he has an affinity for that form of transportation—his 2017 Instagram series about his quest to find his stolen bicycle in Pittsburgh went viral—and that he has committed to give 10 bikes to a Boys & Girls Club in each state. “Being a professional athlete and riding a bike to work every day, that connected with a lot of people,” Smith-Schuster says.
The self-anointed “best Fortnite player out of any athlete in the world” shares his idea for a football cleat painted to pay homage to that multi-player gaming phenomenon, or a shoe for fans of more violent games that has “blood trickling down” from the ankles. Maybe footware marketed around Coachella, the California music festival. He peruses other athletes’ social media accounts during the meeting and asks, “Why do guys just post workout, workout, workout?” He hips everyone to his favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh, a Korean spot called Soju, and his latest Netflix binge, a bank-robbery series from Spain called Money Heist. He floats his idea of putting a microchip in his cleats that would allow Adidas customers to experience a touchdown with him, from huddle to end zone. “Maybe they could win free gear. Or get first in line for a shoe that’s about to drop.”
The Adidas people can’t type it into their tablets fast enough.
Among his many identities—devoted son, babysitter, Polynesian prince, recently anointed No. 1 receiver—Smith-Schuster is the counterargument to the parenting strategy of holding a kid back to let him mature. JuJu, who started kindergarten at age four, was playing Power 5 college football before he could vote. He didn’t bother to get a driver’s license the whole time he was at USC, preferring to bike or catch rides. When he wanted to go home, one of the 40 or so members of his Long Beach–based family zoomed 15 miles up the 110 Freeway and got him. These details are also part of who he is, and who he is isn’t like anyone else.
Only four wideouts gained more receiving yards than Smith-Schuster’s 1,426 last year. None of them moved more merch: JuJu ranked 10th among all NFL players in jersey sales. His mother, Sammy Toa Schuster, standing on the sideline during the Aramis test, her long black hair braided into pigtails that shrink their 20-year age gap, responds to a compliment about the son she has raised with the line she has used for 22 years: “He makes it easy.” JuJu’s presence conveys equal parts mama’s boy and mischief, but ultimately it’s this: Here is someone capable of updating the word wholesome for the 21st century.
If the NFL’s single-minded culture will let him.
“Once I mess up, if I happen to play poorly, the first thing I hear is, Ah he’s playing too many video games, or, He’s making too many YouTube videos,” he says during one of five interviews with SI this offseason. His voice rises an octave, in mild exasperation. “Why can’t I catch balls and score touchdowns and come off the field and make YouTube videos to create extra income for my family? . . . I think people should use those opportunities to their advantage. Not just to grow their brand, but to grow as a person.
“The word art is unique to each individual,” Smith-Schuster continues. “Art can be a painting or art can be me taking a kid to prom. Art can be your personality, how you put it on display. . . . What I do with social media, with my YouTube, my gaming, my personality, my foundation, how I put myself out there—that’s art. I think everything I’m doing is being done in a positive way, trying to give as much as possible and not asking anything in return. That’s art, to me.”
Samoa lies farther from Hawaii than Hawaii lies from the mainland U.S. Its first white settlers named Samoa the Navigator Islands because Samoans were so good at finding their way in unpredictable, coral-filled waters.
JuJu’s grandmother, Teuila Toa, was born on the island of Manu’a and came to the U.S. in the 1970s “for a better life, a better opportunity,” says her daughter Sammy, born in L.A. in ’76. Sammy had a daughter of her own, So’omalo, now 24, then a son she named John, before the kids’ father, LeAndre Smith, left the picture.
Lawrence Schuster, despite his European name, comes from generations of Samoans. He and USC linebackers coach Johnny Nansen grew up together in Western Samoa until they were nine, when their families made the 5,000-mile move to Long Beach. When Nansen was the starting quarterback at Jordan High in the early ’90s, Schuster was his center. About 10 years later he met Sammy.
Her four-year-old son, nicknamed JuJu by an aunt, liked candy and sports, in that order, so Lawrence brought sweets when he came by. Marriage followed, then five more children. This is how two full-blooded Samoans came to raise a son who draws double-takes when they’re nearby because he looks 100% African-American, save, perhaps, for his mother’s gentle island eyes.
“There were, like, 23 people in our household,” says JuJu. “My brothers and sisters, we spent every day together. So I’ve always had a thing for kids. I had to love kids! And my grandparents were always around, so I was comfortable with senior citizens too.” It was accidental training for a rare breed of Internet star.
“Kids younger than 12—they usually don’t have social media,” Smith-Schuster explains. “They don’t have Instagram or Snapchat. They watch YouTube videos. . . . Recently I had dinner with some people 60 to 70 years of age. They told me they only watch YouTube. They don’t have social media. These are all people I get to touch.”
The old and the young, the nerd and the jock, the gamers and the girls they’re too shy to approach—from South L.A. to Mumbai, they all follow this cyber Pied Piper wherever he goes. Over and over, the irreverent, disparately themed videos Smith-Schuster creates (and stars in) champion the outcasts among us. Folks in assisted-living facilities, pasty fanboys at the mall. Hollywood couldn’t have crafted a more dramatic antibullying scene than the youngest player in the league knocking Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict on his ass in December 2017, then standing over the renowned intimidator, woofing. (Even if it did earn Smith-Schuster a one-game suspension.)
For a fee, he allows corporate partners to take a pinch of his multicultural dust and present their brands—Doritos, Pepsi, Art of Sport (Kobe Bryant’s skincare line)—to these diverse demographics. He often does this on social media, where clicks and views mean pocket money for his parents and fai’ai pilikaki (a Samoan blend of mackerel, coconut milk and spices) for his siblings. Yeah, he was chosen for the Pro Bowl last season, but he’s playing on his four-year, $4.2 million rookie contract, and Lawrence still works full-time for the Haz Mat division of the L.A. County Fire Department. Sponsored tweets help finance his younger siblings’ dreams.
JuJu’s dream, when he was their age, was simple: “I wanted to be [USC tailback] Reggie Bush. Every [home] game, just about every practice, I was there.” He met Pete Carroll at a USC youth camp and shared his vision with the then Trojans coach. “I’ll never forget what he told me,” Smith-Schuster says. “He said, ‘Follow your dreams, believe in yourself.’”
His parents told him the same, even as they assigned him chores and the task of babysitting his five younger siblings. “His mom still makes him take out the trash,” says Nansen. “When he was 14 he was held accountable for things that most parents let slide.”
That 14-year-old was still known as John Smith when he matriculated from the South Bay Spartans rugby club to Long Beach’s famed football factory, Polytechnic High, where he had a 99-yard TD catch in his first varsity start. It was a zigzagging, stiff-arming affair that foreshadowed the player who already has a pair of 97-yarders in the NFL. “A little kid’s spirit in a grown man’s body,” says USC coach Clay Helton.
Helton and other college coaches weren’t interested in John Smith as a junior, when he was fighting for snaps with other FBS aspirants on the team. The Reggie Bush dream flickered. But then the touchdowns started happening, and the interceptions and the big hits as Poly’s free safety. Oregon wanted him desperately, and he told everyone he was going there until the day of his announcement ceremony. The video of that event captures the young showman, when he didn’t think anyone was looking, arranging four college-logoed hats on the table before him, moving the Oregon and USC caps to opposite ends, for maximum theater. Later, with two dozen Polynesians of all ages standing behind him, John Smith reached for the Oregon hat then swerved and placed the one with SC on his head. His mom burst into tears. He was wearing a T‑shirt bearing the image of his grandmother, Teuila, whom everyone called Big Mama. She had died two years earlier.
What were you doing at age 17? John Smith was catching 54 balls for a marquee program, returning kicks and playing on every other special teams unit. “No, that’s not the norm,” says Helton, the Trojans’ offensive coordinator that year. “Sometimes kids play their senior year [of high school] at age 17, but that’s getting rarer too.” Asked what makes Smith-Schuster tick, Helton doesn’t talk about his gregariousness or generosity, but his toughness.
“Never missed a practice in three years,” says Nansen. “The kid is disciplined, with everything in his life. His personal life, the football field, what he does on social media. He relies heavily on his family and their values.” Smith-Schuster’s golden rule for social media: If Mom wouldn’t approve, don’t post it. “A couple of times she has asked me to take things down,” he says. He has consented.
Discipline and toughness reveal themselves in many ways. On a recent Friday, Smith-Schuster’s alarm went off in his Pittsburgh home at 4:30 a.m. JuJu and his French bulldog, Boujee—who has 206,000 Instagram followers of his own—had a 5:40 flight to L.A., where JuJu had a full day of appearances. (As the Samoan proverb says, O le nofo fale ile taeao, e le ai ile afiafi: Who sits at home in the morning will not eat in the evening.) After touching down at LAX, but before a photo shoot for this magazine, he hit up an e-sports convention at the plush W Hotel in Hollywood, which included meetings and social media obligations and a rendezvous with his partners at EA Sports.
Smith-Schuster walked into a suite reserved for the photo shoot and introduced himself to four strangers, one of whom handed him his full Steelers uniform, including his helmet, yellow elbow sleeve and black gloves. He changed in a men’s room down the hall, then the stranger put an unplugged video-game controller in his hand and asked him to have a seat and pretend he’s playing Call of Duty.
As the photographer’s shutter whirred, JuJu invested fully, grimacing and twisting his controller to avoid an imaginary digital death, the plug of the device flopping on the floor. Next, he was asked to stand and celebrate an imaginary touchdown. As “Sicko Mode” pounded the walls, he partied like he’d just beaten a Ravens double team and made a toe-tap catch at the pylon. Let’s gooooooo! After that he was positioned next to a sunlit window and told to act as if he was pondering his future.
This was easiest of all, for JuJu has been doing that since Lawrence—whom he calls Dad, never Stepdad—handed him his first pigskin and signed him up for Snoop Dogg’s youth league. The vision became real at the empire that Carroll built, where, Helton says, “the lights are as bright as they get.” USC is also where John Smith changed his name to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and where the ascetic who eschewed social media started an account on every platform. He met Karan Gill, a student who worked in the Trojans’ recruiting office and shared Smith-Schuster’s work ethic and aversion to smoking and drinking. Gill has been one of Smith-Schuster’s personal managers and social media adviser ever since, shooting, editing, posting—and always abiding by the “Sammy better like it” rule.
Smith-Schuster pedaled his bike to USC’s sand volleyball courts and flogged himself with solo workouts of his own design. Then he expanded his rides outward. Cycling around the L.A. campus is worlds different from doing so in Tuscaloosa or Eugene. Styling in his Minions backpack (a hand-me-up from his little brothers), he rode his BMX past Korean bodegas, Salvadoran pupuserias, skaters and gangbangers, cops and coeds, the haves and the homeless. Given his pre-NFL experiences, the question isn’t, How did JuJu become JuJu? It’s, How could he not? “I always appreciated that he could flip the switch on game day,” says Helton, “but he wasn’t one of those guys who was consumed by the game. JuJu was consumed by life.”
His commitment to football remained unwavering. As evidence of that, some cite the broken right hand he suffered at Cal his sophomore year and his performance seven days later—eight catches for 138 yards against Arizona after the surgical insertion of a metal plate and screw. Helton chooses the next game, at Colorado: “We were struggling. He dropped a ball in the end zone for a touchdown. I came in at halftime and the trainer says, ‘Coach, JuJu’s trying to rip his soft cast off.’
“I said, ‘JuJu, one of two things is gonna happen. You’re gonna leave that cast on and help us go win this game, or you can rip it off and stand next to me.’ And he goes out and catches the winning touchdown.”
The day before that game, Smith-Schuster provided a greater example of his hunger by sending a direct message to the NFL’s most prolific active receiver: What’s up AB? I’m a receiver at the University of Southern California. I appreciate all your work. You’re a great man on and off the field. Do you have any tips that can help take my game to the next level? Thanks man.
No one knew about that DM until this spring, when a fan reminded recently traded Steelers receiver Antonio Brown that Smith-Schuster had been named the team’s 2018 MVP. Brown, who had just joined the Raiders after a tumultuous 2018 season (in which he caught fewer balls, for fewer yards, than Smith-Schuster), posted JuJu’s three-year-old Instagram note to make a point about . . . well, no one’s sure.
A social media exchange between the former teammates ensued, with Smith-Schuster basically saying, Why are you doing this? and Brown reminding everyone of Smith-Schuster’s critical fumble in a late-season loss to the Saints.
“For me, I have no hatred towards him,” says Smith-Schuster, whom the Steelers took in the second round after his junior year. “Hate is a strong word to use. The word I use is disappointed. Playing with him for two years, he was a role model. Everything he did, he dominated. I respect his game so much, I wanted to play like him, be great with him. Obviously there were other plans in place. I can’t control that.”
Did AB ever respond to that initial message?
While Brown was alienating loyalists and ex-teammates alike this offseason, Smith-Schuster was expanding his fan base by, among other things, playing football with his social media followers inside a crowded Orlando mall. Within minutes of fellow YouTube star Danny Duncan’s online invitation, “50 kids showed up,” Smith-Schuster says. When security guards arrived he persuaded them to ref. The video drew 746,400 views.
The following month featured a video of a Schuster family barbecue at a South L.A. park, in which Boujee strutted past the silly string and the bouncy houses, looking convinced that the affair was about him. JuJu flew to Pittsburgh later that week and cut a rug at the Pitt Dance Marathon to raise money for Children’s Hospital. The next month, at the Forward Shady Senior Care facility, he served lunch to people four times his age, then exercised with them. A week later hundreds showed up at his impromptu water-balloon fight at a Pittsburgh park.
“Now that AB left and I’m the No. 1 guy, people are gonna say, Is he going to take it more seriously? Is he going to do less social media? Less public stuff?” Smith-Schuster says. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna change because one person left. I’m gonna do what I always do, which is what’s best for the team.
“But I’m still gonna be JuJu.”
Being JuJu entails accepting a prom invitation from a suburban Pittsburgh teenager named Anthony whose first choice spurned him for his best friend. “His best friend is the cool kid, the most popular kid on campus,” Smith-Schuster says. “Right away I thought, This would be a good concept for YouTube.” And so it was, to the tune of 568,000 views and counting. Edited out of the video, though, was the “F--- AB!” chant that arose organically from the dancing high schoolers near the end of the evening. That footage is available elsewhere (109,000 views, alas). Says JuJu, “I didn’t catch on to what they were saying until someone had started recording.”
Pitfalls like that are part of being JuJu, too. “Most [NFL] veterans kinda go back to their hiding spot and lay back and chill because they feel like they’ve done that [fan interaction] already, their first or second year,” he says. “Then there are others who are willing to put themselves on the line and spend more time with their fans and the people.”
Smith-Schuster, if you haven’t gathered, is of this second group. His teammates, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, goof on him about his popularity and the inner child who fuels it. “My locker [used to be] far away from Big Ben’s, so I could be hyper and loud,” Smith-Schuster says. “As soon as I moved next to his locker, when he’s around, I’m quiet. You gotta respect the gated community.”
None of his fans needed him more than a young man JuJu calls Ray, out of respect for his privacy. In May, Ray’s family contacted the Steelers and said he had two weeks to live. “He could have wished for anything,” Smith-Schuster says, “and he told the Steelers, ‘Before I go to heaven, I just want to meet JuJu.’ I was like, Wow, out of all the things in the world, he asked to meet me? When I heard that—I broke down crying.”
A few days later, Smith-Schuster drove across Pennsylvania to see Ray, who has inoperable brain cancer. “Usually he’s always sleeping, because of the meds,” JuJu says. “But he didn’t take meds that day and stayed awake for like, four hours, just hanging out with me. . . . His family said he hadn’t smiled like that for a while.”
Regarding the invitations he accepts, whether it’s to a prom or a pediatric ward, JuJu says, “It can’t be like putting on a mask or putting on a different face. I need to be myself.” He is sitting in a trailer outside another Adidas shoot. (He calls them “opportunities.”) “The Bachelor wanted me to be on the show, but I said no.”
“I declined it for him,” Sammy says with a laugh.
When Celebrity Family Feud called, though, mother and son saw it as a perfect fit. They shot their episode in April—JuJu, two aunts, an uncle and Sammy facing off against Team Ninja, led by Tyler (Ninja) Blevins, the most popular pro gamer in the world, and the man who, in March 2018, played Fortnite with JuJu, Travis Scott and Drake on the most-watched gaming livestream ever (628,000 views).
Back in Portland, Adidas is asking Smith-Schuster to play football. He’ll run slant routes against an athletic actor who has been hired for the role of out-of-focus cornerback, then celebrate and sneer at the photographer and the three-camera crew. He’ll dance, as he used to do during TV timeouts at SC, when “JuJu On That Beat” would play over the Coliseum’s P.A. and he would hop around on the grass for a full minute.
Except now he’s getting paid for it. It’s “light work,” as the kids say.
After one fake touchdown, Smith-Schuster whispers to a handful of onlookers that the cornerback actor “looks like Amari Cooper,” which makes everyone crack up because the guy looks exactly like the Cowboys receiver.
“I’m making your jobs easy!” he shouts to the film crew after his 20th TD. “I make you want to come to work!”
On the perimeter of the set, where the lights aren’t shining, Sammy is asked if she is ever afraid for her son, his future, his schedule, all the attention. “As a parent, I’m not afraid that he’ll disappoint me, only that he won’t be happy.”
She knows his star is rising, his circle is widening. There’s no way to stop that—other than failure, which isn’t part of the plan. She is aware that women want to date him strictly for the social media bump. “I just want him to follow his heart,” she says. Then, with a smirk, “I told him, ‘Don’t introduce me to any woman who isn’t gonna be your wife.’”
A few weeks later he is dressed to the nines in an ornate gold ballroom at the historic Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A., for the JuJu Foundation’s first fundraiser. His guests include Trojans greats like Anthony Muñoz and Lawrence Jackson, who will help Smith-Schuster raise $97,000 on this night for initiatives like his Boys & Girls Club’s bikes project. There are elderly USC boosters present, from the days of John McKay and John Robinson, who compliment him on the latest offerings on his YouTube channel. Some of them brought their grandkids. Everyone from USC tells JuJu they miss him.
It is midnight now, the ballroom is empty, the lights low. JuJu loosens his red bowtie and repeats the question he’s just been asked: “Where will I be in 20 years? I can see myself just waking up on a beach every day, enjoying myself. Doing football camps in Europe, in Samoa, Hawaii. I used to say I wanted six kids, but after babysitting my brothers and sisters all week”—he laughs—“maybe just four.”
Moments later he walks outside the old hotel. Headlights stream past as he stands on the sidewalk in his all-red tux, its tapered trousers cut stylishly above the ankle. He takes a deep breath and looks skyward, the evening having come to an end, the curtain on the life of Teuila Toa’s grandson having barely lifted.
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