JuJu Smith-Schuster's glow-up can be heard before it is seen. The 21-year-old Steelers wide receiver pulls into the South Side Dog Park parking lot with music blasting out of his Slingshot, a three-wheel motorcycle he prefers for his casual days out. Boujee, his Instagram-verified French bulldog with more than 120,000 followers, is riding shotgun.
Smith-Schuster hops out the whip and walks around to put Boujee on a leash. They stroll into the dog park, situated next to a busy railroad track near the Monongahela River here in Pittsburgh, and Smith-Schuster lets Boujee loose. Boujee runs freely inside this patchy field while his owner finds a spot on a nearby bench to unload. It's been a packed three days for Smith-Schuster: He took part in EA’s press conference at E3, a video game expo, in Los Angeles, felt the strength of a K-9's mouth at Ben Roethlisberger's softball charity game in Findlay, Ohio, and then flew back to Pittsburgh on a private jet.
Smith-Schuster's entire offseason has been just as lit. The youngest player in the NFL in 2017, taken in the second round out of USC, he became a reliable target for the Steelers on the field—and a must-follow off it.
Bleacher Report caught up with Smith-Schuster to discuss how he quickly established his transcendent brand across social media and YouTube, how Boujee now has his own agent and how his epic night on Twitch with Drake really went down.
Bleacher Report: How were you able to build such an influential brand after one NFL season?
JuJu Smith-Schuster: It all starts off on the field. In any sport, that's how you catch people's attention. From there, you kinda show your fans, your following, what kind of person you are and your personality. I let the field work do its work. The stuff that happens on the field, when you do good, everything off the field just comes naturally and just being myself.
B/R: Athletes are often taught to stick to football. How were you able to balance football while still growing your brand with multiple ventures?
JSS: My No. 1 rule in life is to have fun. I've been playing this sport since I was a kid, and I've been having fun. The only difference is that there's money involved now and it's a business. At the end of the day, you've gotta be yourself. Stuff like me going to Coachella, those are just fun things. I went to Kenny Chesney [in Pittsburgh] and concerts like that where I'm involved in the community. I just want to let people know that JuJu is all about football. He's focused on football. But at the same time, I've gotta live my life too.
B/R: Are there any NFL athletes you feel paved the way for you and your brand growth?
JSS: Before I got to the league, the greatest example you can say is Odell [Beckham Jr.]. He came into the league as a rookie, balled out. Everything he does off the field—his dancing, his celebrations, traveling, playing soccer and being involved in something worldwide like being with Cristiano Ronaldo—that's what people want to see with the personal stuff that goes on. At the end of the day, we all know you play ball. But what else can you do? Odell was one of the guys that paved that road. Another guy is Antonio Brown, who is very involved not just in the community, but he's traveling around and having fun. For myself, I don't go too crazy. I don't go private jet this, private jet that. I may do first class here and there, but nothing too crazy [laughs].
B/R: When did you get Boujee?
JSS: When I moved to Pittsburgh, nobody from my family was going to travel with me. They stayed out in [Southern California], and I was like, man, I wanna get a dog for my birthday. I was into French bulldogs because of my ex that got me into French bulldogs. I got Boujee in November. He's seven months right now. He's super excited to see other dogs. Basically, he's been my Day 1. He's from NorCal. I'm actually going to take him to see his family this summer. I made an Instagram because he's kind of like me. Everyone likes dogs. When he hopped over his cage, that went viral. That's how he got verified on Instagram and blew up ever since then. I'm always doing stuff with him, getting him involved with things.
B/R: Did you think he would get such a huge following?
JSS: I didn't think it would blow up how it did now. It's to the point now where Boujee has his own agency. He does deals just like a football player. He gets 80 percent and the agent gets 20 percent on marketing.
B/R: Hold on, hold on. What deals are we talking about here? Dog food?
JSS: Dog food, outfits, stuff like that. Posters. He's Boujee, man. He's got real grass in his house to play in. It's pretty dope.
B/R: Why did you pick the name?
JSS: The song "Bad and Boujee." When you think about him, he gets everything he wants. I always say he's the richest dog on the block. He lives in a penthouse. He's funny. We do actual YouTube videos. People love him, man. It's insane how much he's blown up.
(Boujee also "bought" JuJu a Tesla for Father's Day.)
B/R: Why did you create JuJu TV?
JSS: YouTube. The most popping thing on social media right now is YouTube. The age from 3-14 is all on YouTube. It's more into details. Instagram is great. I would say Instagram is more for our younger generation with a minute videos. It's decent. It's long. Twitter is more for the older generations. They're all good for all generations, but if you look at the Lil Tay video I posted, I only posted that on Instagram because it's a younger audience. If I would've posted it on Twitter, it would've been for an older audience and wouldn't have been as good. I would've gotten a lot of comments and a lot of bad stuff like that. Our generation is Instagram and Snapchat, and a little bit of Twitter.
The reason I created a YouTube channel was because I can connect on a more personal level and be more detailed, within 10 minutes, of my life and what I do on a daily basis. When I go to these events, concerts or traveling, my fans love it. One of the biggest hits on my YouTube channel was me going undercover and interviewing people about the [Vontaze] Burfict hit. Another one was me going back to school in my uniform. They love that stuff. I do it because I do football until 1-2 p.m., then I just make YouTube videos. It's also easy money. I'm not doing it for the money, but I'm doing it and the money is adding up. It's so fun, man.
B/R: Do you have a video and graphics team?
JSS: I do. I got fire 24/7. I got all the heat. I'm always ready to go.
B/R: Take me through the process. We'll use your LeBron to Pittsburgh campaign as an example. How do you come up with the videos and photoshop illustrations?
JSS: How it works is that I tell one of my guys, "Yo, this is what we're doing." He brings it up and makes a plan. With the whole LeBron thing to Pittsburgh, it was an idea we came up with together. LeBron should go to Pittsburgh. It's going to go viral, and we're going to push it heavy. We got SeatGeek on board, and they sponsored us with tickets. That's how we went to the Cavs game against the Clippers. Once I tell him, he tells all the video, photographers, editors. He sends [the content] to me. I clear it, and we go. Boom, we launch it at a certain time because 75 percent of my following live in Pittsburgh. The rest is in Los Angeles, and like 5-10 percent is in New York. You post it at a certain time of the day when all of your followers are watching, and [snaps fingers] it goes off like that. Once it hits, everybody reposts it. It's a go, and you ride it as long as possible.
B/R: So it starts off as a fun concept, then you get tactical with it.
JSS: Yeah, because you don't want to be wild with it. You don't want to be like, "OK, I'm going to post this,' and not have a plan of what's coming next. When LeBron caught that deep ball in the NBA Finals, I was like, he can do that. He can go deep. I'm always saying things like Cavs in 4. When the Cavs lose, Cavs in 5. When the Cavs lose, Cavs in 7. I'm going to just keep riding it. I'm a big LeBron fan. It was pretty dope. Everyone asks me why did I stop the campaign. It's because the reality is that LeBron is not coming to Pittsburgh.
B/R: You mentioned the Burfict hit. I saw you posted memes and gifs from that hit on social media.
JSS: I'm not even the one making those. The fans are doing those. I didn't know how big it was to take Burfict out like that. After that hit, I don't have to pay for anything. When I go to bars, I don't have to pay for drinks or anything. "Yo, we appreciate what you did," and stuff like that. I remember my last week here [during the season], I didn't have to pay for no meals. I went out to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day and didn't have to pay for nothing.
B/R: What are you expecting from Burfict during those Bengals-Steelers games this year?
JSS: It's going to be crazy. I've gotta keep my head on a swivel. He's a savage.
B/R: How did you get on Twitch with Drake, Ninja and Travis Scott?
JSS: I hit up Ninja on Twitter like, yo, we need to play. He said he was down, so we had always scheduled to play. He was finally like, yo JuJu, we're playing tonight. I'm like, all right, let's do it. Then he said Drake is probably going to hop on with us too, and Travis might hop in later. Next thing you know, we're all in this little group just playing. It's insane. In my head, I was trying to act cool, but I was like what the hell! This is crazy! I'm in the FaZe Clan house, and I'm trying to tell Ninja to join FaZe. Drake is asking how I play football and also join a gaming clan. I got both of them to say FaZe, and everyone in the house was like, this is crazy. It was the most insane night ever, breaking records and making history.
B/R: What's your involvement with FaZe Clan?
JSS: I was big in Call of Duty and used to play a lot. I used to do sniping, quick scope, with all of these clips. I went to them and was like, yo, I want to join. Lil Yachty and Ugly God had just joined, and I was like, I need to join too. I wanted to be part of something in the gaming world. There's no athlete that's part of the gaming world like I am with FaZe Clan. I'm the first one to do it. From there, I just took over. I let them boys know that wherever I go [pulls off hoodie to show FaZe Clan shirt underneath]. Gaming is just natural. I do it in my free time. When I'm not hanging out with Boujee or doing something I need to be doing, I'm always gaming.
B/R: How do you come up with your touchdown celebrations?
JSS: Dragon Ball Z is one of my favorite shows. If you know it, people of my generation can relate to it. In college, I had soooo many ideas to do celebrations, but you get flagged. So now, I know all of my celebrations and I'm hitting it. I've got boys on my team who are also nice and can score by themselves and do celebrations. So why not be lit? Me and Le'Veon [Bell] come up with the majority of our celebrations. AB comes up with some of them. We just go out and execute it.
Sometimes it's right before the game. Sometimes it's the night before. It's not a lot of time. Some of them we did was literally right on the field. I just thought of it and did it.
B/R: What about your custom cleat game?
JSS: Yeah, that is the culture. You can't do a lot in the NFL. In basketball, you can do more. People have their own shoes. In football, you don't. So with cleats, each week is like a new theme. I've got a cleat designer, and he's pretty dope.
B/R: You wish there would be more freedom in the NFL with cleat customization?
JSS: Yeah, I wish. I wish we can do what we can and be ourselves and play with our own swag. They say you look how you play.
B/R: Now that you've signed on with EA, what's your favorite EA Sports game?
JSS: Right now, I'm starting to like FIFA a lot. Madden is dope. I'm in the game, so that's pretty cool. When I don't get my touches in the game, I come home and play Madden and throw it to myself like 30 times. It's pretty dope though.
B/R: If you could challenge one person in either FIFA or Madden, who would it be?
JSS: I've played the world champion in Madden, who won it last year, and I don't think I want to play anyone else after losing to him. It was 21-0, but we played two minutes per quarter. That's how good he is. I'd like to play Neymar in FIFA. I think that would be dope to play an actual soccer player in FIFA.
B/R: Where does your brand go from here?
JSS: It's just going up from here, man. I just gotta take care of stuff on the field, and everything will fall into place. My goal was to make myself more out there during the offseason and to be involved in a lot of stuff, and I felt like I've done that. I feel like I've reached a point where I'm all over the place, from coast to coast. Now my next goal is to go overseas and to be known in these other countries. I want to go global. As training camp comes up, you're going to see my whole mood focus a little bit because I want to get right and get healthy. I've got a bigger role this year. I've got to take it another notch. The second year is the most important because [opposing teams] know who you are now. They're going to double-team you, but at the end of the day, I still gotta do what I gotta do.
B/R: Any individual goals this season?
JSS: My goal right now is ... I'm trying to get [Super Bowl] No. 7 for our team. I think it's nice when, yeah, I want this many touchdowns and this many yards. But at the end of the day, I just want to win a championship. It's so hard to win one of those. You can be in this league for 10-15 years and not win a championship. My boy, Nelson Agholor, been in the league for three years and got a ring with Philly. That's what we live for and dream for. That's why I think a lot of guys stay in Pittsburgh because we always compete for championships. It's chill here, chill vibes. I like it a lot.
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