'It's Time to Get Money': JuJu Smith-Schuster Talks End-Zone Dances, What's Next

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterNovember 10, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster warms up before an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — JuJu Smith-Schuster likes to arrive in style. So when he fought his way into the end zone for the first time as a professional football player, on a shovel pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second game of the season, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Had he come into the league a year ago, he would have been forced to mark the momentous occasion of his first professional points with a simple spike or a few high-fives. But the NFL relaxed its celebration rules in the offseason, and Smith-Schuster seized on the newfound freedom.

He gestured to a group of teammates who crouched around him and watched as he rolled some imaginary dice. “We just decided, man, we are going to roll the dice,” Smith-Schuster says. “It’s time to get money.”

Money is exactly what Smith-Schuster has been for the Steelers so far this season. In last spring’s NFL draft, Smith-Schuster saw five receivers selected before him as he slipped deep into the second round. Now in Week 10, Smith-Schuster’s 424 receiving yards are 63 more than those five picked before him have—combined. And beyond his statistics, he’s become a sensation with fans for his social media presence and his end-zone celebrations. In an NFL season plagued by controversy and injury, Smith-Schuster—the youngest player in the NFL at 20 years old—is the antidote, an injection of fun.

He was born John Smith. But an aunt decided that the his fairly forgettable name couldn’t keep up with his personality, so she sampled a few different nicknames—JoJo and then ChuChu and then JuJu, which stuck. Sammy and Lawrence Schuster raised JuJu in Southern California. And though Lawrence is his stepfather, JuJu has called Lawrence “Dad” for as long as he can recall. To honor the man, Smith legally changed his last name to Smith-Schuster as soon as he turned 18.

JuJu’s first love in sports was rugby, but he was always ahead of his years on the football field. He starred as a two-way player for Long Beach Polytechnic, which has produced the second-most NFL players of any high school in America. In his first collegiate game at USC, he caught four passes for 123 yards. By the time he decided to forgo his senior season to turn pro, he’d amassed 3,092 yards, 25 touchdowns and a reputation as an outsized personality. He dabbled in Ultimate Frisbee and rode AirWheels. He sported a cardinal-and-gold-dyed Mohawk on his head and slung Elmo and light-up Minions backpacks around his shoulders.

And as quickly as he’s announced himself as a standout rookie this season, he’s also become one of the best follows on social media. For a while, he documented his daily bike rides to the team facility. When his bike was stolen a few weeks ago, it launched a social media investigation so widespread that the Steelers’ director of communications had to implore the media and fans publicly to stop asking him about it. When former adult-film actress and known social media entrapment artist Mia Khalifa tagged him on Twitter, Smith-Schuster sidestepped her like so many would-be tacklers.

The stolen bike set in motion what became a publicly documented quest for a driver’s license. Having never bothered to get his license in high school, he relied on USC’s free Uber programs in college. He didn’t plan to get a car in Pittsburgh either, until veteran offensive tackle Al Villanueva insisted on it. Villanueva, who didn’t get a license until his early 20s, took it upon himself to help Smith-Schuster. On Tuesdays after practice, they’d set off in his Ford F-150 for lessons. “He drives slow,” Villanueva says. “That’s all you can ask.” On Tuesday, Smith-Schuster completed the quest.

What Smith-Schuster is best known for, though, is what happens when he gets in the end zone, which he’s done four times this season. When the NFL announced its relaxed celebration rules in May, Smith-Schuster started preparing right away. He has a list of ideas locked away in the Notes app on his phone. “And nobody will ever see them,” he says. But the routines vary in terms of preparation time. His second celebration was a solo act, a reference to his favorite video game character, Goku of Dragon Ball Z. He had been planning that one for a while.

Some celebrations have been spur of the moment. Right before the Steelers kicked off against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 22, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell—Smith-Schuster’s most frequent collaborator in the celebration studio—approached him with an idea. Without rehearsing, they played hide-and-seek after Smith-Schuster hauled in a 31-yard score.

Other celebrations require more precise planning. When Bell came up with the idea to bench press after his next score, a small group choreographed it during breaks at practice. When Bell found the end zone in what would become a Week 8 win over the Lions, Smith acted as his bench for a weight-lifting routine. And when Smith-Schuster scored on a 97-yard catch and run (and run and run) in the third quarter, he went solo again, strutting over to the sideline to lock up the team’s stationary bike. It was part of a 10-catch, 197-yard performance that acted as Smith-Schuster’s official arrival as one of the NFL’s most promising young receivers.

“There was a lot going on that week,” Smith-Schuster says. “When I scored that touchdown, that was very personal. It was probably the best one.”

On an offense dominated by veterans—Roethlisberger is 35, Bell is 25, and standout wideout Antonio Brown is 29—Smith-Schuster has managed to move into the spotlight without making too many waves. Even after fellow receiver Martavis Bryant made an ill-advised Instagram comment deriding Smith-Schuster and reportedly asked for a trade, Smith-Schuster handled the situation professionally, saying he understood Bryant’s perspective. “He’s great for our team,” says fellow receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. “We like the fact that we have a little brother we can look after.”

On Halloween, less than 24 hours before the team would be released for its bye week, Smith-Schuster stood at his locker answering a question when Bell sneaked up behind him dressed as Ghostface from Scream. “This is my worst nightmare right here,” Smith-Schuster joked. One question later, Villanueva walked over and posed as a reporter.

“I heard you’re celebrating the next touchdown with the left tackle,” Villanueva said. “Is that right?”

“Oh most definitely, Big Al,” he responded. “We might do our driving test, where we’re both in the car and he’s teaching me how to drive.”

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

As for what’s really coming next, Smith-Schuster prefers to keep that to himself, but he doesn’t avoid making grand pronouncements. “This week,” he says, “we’re going to do something that’s trending and that everyone in the world is talking about right now. … People will be like, ‘Wow, they really just did that.’”

Dazzling fans won’t be anything new for Smith-Schuster. Not even 10 games into his tenure in Pittsburgh, he has already emerged as a threat on the field and a thrill off it. Of course, it’s too soon to project precisely where Smith-Schuster is heading next, but one thing is for sure: When he gets there, he’ll know how to celebrate.