The swagger, the calm, the certainty inside the Steelers locker room was palpable back in January 2018. One of the NFL's most treasured franchises was on the verge of a seventh Lombardi Trophy. You could feel it. Sense it.
Practically everywhere you looked was a future Hall of Famer. Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. All at the peak of their powers. After a 13-3 regular season, these Steelers undoubtedly had the talent to first vanquish the imposters that were the Jaguars, then slay Tom Brady and the Patriots, then win the Super Bowl...and they knew it.
Confidence soared, right on down to a rookie sensation named JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The glow of that trio was not intimidating him.
"As a player, I want to be…" Smith-Schuster told B/R at the time, squinting and pausing a few seconds, "remembered. I say 'remembered,' because I don't want to be a guy who just comes by, walks through the locker room—'Oh, he did that'—and he's not remembered. I don't want to be the guy who's, 'Oh yeah, he's good, good, good.' I want to be remembered like Randy Moss. I want to leave a legacy here, like AB's doing it. I follow his footsteps every day.
"I'm trying to be the best of the best."
A few days later, an icy chill submerged a stadium that had transformed into nothing but yellow Terrible Towels and clouds of exhales from every mouth of every fan, coach and player with "Thunderstruck" booming from the speakers. You could practically hear John Facenda growl, see Jack Lambert snarl and feel goosebumps on your goosebumps when the ball was kicked. Another epic chapter was set to be written in the history of an epic franchise.
Then, instead, that franchise began the process of completely unraveling.
The Steelers were punished physically and dumped from the playoffs by those alleged imposters.
Bell, that revolutionary back, sat out the entire next season.
Brown, that GOAT-chasing receiver, redefined career suicide by quitting on the Steelers in Week 17 of the 2018 season and then, after being traded to the Raiders, falling deep and even deeper into a world of bizarre only he deems rational (treating most everyone he encounters as scum along the way).
Big Ben? He threw for a career-high 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2018 but also missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, and then he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 of the 2019 season. He'll be 38 years old with 237 starts under his belt by the time 2020 rolls around.
It's been a cataclysmic chain of events, leaving Smith-Schuster as the last star standing.
Er, make that lying down, on a table inside the Steelers' weight room on this day some 20 months later, rocking Oakleys and a signature high-top fade.
Smith-Schuster's tone has not changed, nor has the team's.
The Steelers, now 1-3, still expect to win, because that's all they've known. Where other franchises would tank after a start like this, they're shipping off a first-round pick for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick—to get better now.
Such belief may prove to be utter delusion and make eventual rebuilding that much more painful. The Steelers may prove to be a team in denial, bleeding profusely, putting off the trip to urgent care.
But right here is a reason for hope that that won't happen: a 22-year-old face of the franchise to remind everyone that when one generation of stars fades in Pittsburgh, another is bound to emerge.
You just need to look a little deeper.
Yes, Smith-Schuster has morphed his name into a brand in record time. From losing his bike and turning #TeamFindJuJusBike into a national cause. To filming himself, constantly, letting the world know as only Smith-Schuster can when he finally got his driver's license or pranked locals as a "Fake JuJu." To going to prom with a high schooler whose date dumped him, chronicling it all. (The two had matching velvet suits.) To going viral for his love of Fortnite. To autographing a fan's head. (Smith-Schuster told the fan that he'd hook him up with tickets if he got the autograph tattooed, and the fan did, so Smith-Schuster paid up.)
To gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Playing video games.) To introducing the word "litty" into common nomenclature. (This isn't Pittsburgh. This is "Littsburgh," he corrects.) To ramping up his Twitter following to 1.02 million, his IG to 2.9 million, his YouTube channel to 849K.
Smith-Schuster could be perceived as a product of our times, as another self-appointed Generation Z celebrity in need of those minute-by-minute, second-by-second hits of dopamine. Even his the French Bulldog, Boujee, is verified on IG with 223K followers.
Look deeper, though, and there's more to Smith-Schuster than anything an app spits out. A substance. A toughness. Everything the city of Pittsburgh appreciates. He is the one who the Steelers can build around. He is the one who can carry forward the tradition built by the Steel Curtain and company in the 70s and kept alive by Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis and Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger—of a franchise that can't be knocked down for long, one that's only missed the playoffs in consecutive years once this century.
Smith-Schuster sits up straight and stares ahead, his eyes concealed behind those sunglasses.
No, he's not afraid to speak up. "Definitely not afraid. I just tell it how it is."
Because this is his team now, and that's fine by him.
"No pressure, no pressure. I don't feel pressure," he says. "I got guys with me, so they're going to ride or die."
The Steelers will be back because they always are. He'll be the reason why, too.
The JuJu Smith-Schuster who isn't packaged into tidy, filtered IG posts.
This JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The moment Smith-Schuster demolished Vontaze Burfict as a rookie is precisely when his popularity skyrocketed. Burfict was a hated adversary in Pittsburgh. A villain. And this 6'1", 215-pound receiver channeled an entire fanbase's fury in lurking over him, WWE-style. He was fined, suspended, whatever. Smith-Schuster was also promptly offered free drinks, free food, free parking, free anything he'd ever want in this city.
A star was born.
"That's when my whole life changed," Smith-Schuster says. "This city shows so much love. Unbelievable. Wherever I go, it's all love. I can be in a bad neighborhood, and everyone's on my side. That's just how it is around here."
Here's the thing: Burfict wasn't his first victim.
Growing up, rugby was his true love.
During one preseason rugby game, he clotheslined a kid.
The scene was mayhem, with the benches clearing and that kid's parents cussing out Smith-Schuster's parents. Smith-Schuster got suspended for the entire regular season with practically no debate. Of course, he returned for the playoffs and led his South Bay Spartans club team to a championship. He played for the Spartans six years in all, relishing the padless violence. Several colleges even recruited Smith-Schuster to play rugby, and his mom, Sammy Toa-Schuster, thinks he would've made this sport his No. 1 priority had he been offered a full scholarship.
That first year, Mom couldn't go anywhere in Pittsburgh without someone telling her Smith-Schuster was their hero for knocking out Burfict—"I've never seen anyone so happy to see someone get hit like that!" she says. Quite a different reaction from that rugby clothesline.
She tried to apologize to the other kid's parents that day, but they weren't having it. Maybe because, as she recalls, the kid was sent to the hospital.
Smith-Schuster is different than everything we're trained to think about the NFL wide receiver.
He loved playing defense on his Long Beach Polytechnic (California) high school football team, too, and was ranked by Rivals as the No. 2 safety prospect in the class of 2014 nationally, just ahead of Pro Bowl Jets safety Jamal Adams. That's why he loves blocking today, the grunt work that most receivers equate to cleaning toilets. Smith-Schuster loves beelining toward a player who has 30 pounds on him—the challenge, the violence. Blocking brings him back to playing safety, to rugby. It's no shock he was carded all the time, with opposing parents always yelling, "Why is he playing? Take him out!"
When the other team saw Smith-Schuster warming up, Mom could hear all the whispers: "Oh my gosh. He's here. He's here."
"They were afraid of this guy," Sammy says. "And if you see the other team, they're huge. They're bigger than him."
Smith-Schuster remembers the clothesline well and makes no apologies. As he explains, he went low on someone who was smaller than him, which meant his forearm naturally lodged underneath the kid's head and, uh, in his words, "choked him." Thus, the mayhem. He's still convinced everyone on the other team went berserk just so he'd get kicked out, too. One thing he says is certain: This is the Samoan in him. Such heritage runs deep in his mother's genes, and his stepdad is also Samoan.
It's as if a menacing, yoked rugby player doing the (slightly terrifying) Haka ritual was suddenly dropped into an NFL Sunday.
Says Smith-Schuster: "I was around all Polynesians my whole life. That made me a more mean, physical person."
Adds Mom, "It's just that Samoan warrior side."
So there was Smith-Schuster at USC, throwing haymakers at a teammate in practice. And here's Smith-Schuster admittedly "salty" that he wasn't the first wide receiver taken in the 2017 draft. He was the sixth, at No. 62 overall, behind Corey Davis (No. 5), Mike Williams (No. 7), John Ross III (No. 9), Zay Jones (No. 37) and Curtis Samuel (No. 40).
"I use that motivation," he says, "that all 32 of these teams that passed up on me—'Yeah, OK, that's what you're going to do?'"
Not that this side of Smith-Schuster is broadcast on his Instagram.
How does he make this switch from jovial JuJu to the player de-cleating anything in his path?
"When the whistle is blown and that ball is hiked," he says, "there's a different JuJu on the field. And it's Bad JuJu. In between plays, I'm Bad JuJu. I'm trying to really score and do anything I can to win this game.
"In my head, I would do anything, by any means, to win this one play. Whether it's a route, whether it's a run play, whether it's me blocking downfield or whether it's me catching the ball. I don't know how to explain it. Have you ever seen the movie Avatar? That Avatar state? Something like that."
As a result, his teams have always won. From high school (33-8) to USC (27-13) to the pros (23-12-1).
Now, he's the one getting proverbially clotheslined.
The good news is that Smith-Schuster can take a hit, too.
For 30 to 35 seconds, he was out cold. Unconscious.
When he awoke, he couldn't move his neck. Not an inch.
That weekend, Smith-Schuster was supposed to fly across the country to Ohio State—his first college visit—but football wasn't on his mind. When Smith-Schuster, the football player, was knocked out in high school, other thoughts crossed his mind.
What can I move?
What can I do?
Am I breathing?
Mom raced down to the field to see her son and tried not to cry. Tried to be strong. Seeing her pain, he repeated, "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine," even though he still couldn't rotate his head. Smith-Schuster was taken off the field on a stretcher, spent five hours at the hospital, got a MRI and was told that—in addition to the obvious concussion—he must've hit a nerve that "shocked" his body.
Smith-Schuster brushes it off as a stinger today. But at the time, it was scary. Really scary.
Nevertheless, Smith-Schuster flew to Columbus that weekend as originally planned.
The next week, he played.
This is the norm with Smith-Schuster. He does not sit out.
In college, he ravaged the body parts that were supposed to earn him millions: his hands. Smith-Schuster holds them out now and reminisces. As a freshman, he tore tendons in his left thumb…and simply taped it up in a soft cast for every practice, every game, and played on. As a sophomore, he broke the bone beneath the ring finger on his right hand against Cal on a Saturday. He had surgery on Monday, inserting a plate and a screw into his hand, sure to send the gross pictures to head coach Clay Helton. Rehabbed Tuesday through Friday. Played on Saturday.
His first catch that day was a one-hander—with his one good hand—and he finished with 138 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions.
To him, it isn't complicated.
"I just didn't like the feeling of being left out," Smith-Schuster says, "of not being involved and leading my teammates out there."
Mom called Helton to try to convince him to sideline her son, but that was never an option. Not with Smith-Schuster. Through sprained AC joints, a right hip pointer and busting up his hands, he never missed a game at USC.
He hasn't let injuries slow him down in the NFL, either. Smith-Schuster suffered two more concussions, a hamstring injury and a bum ankle as a rookie…then hurt his knee, abdomen and groin in Year 2…and already dinged his toe in Year 3.
That's only what's documented, too.
What's even more absurd than Smith-Schuster bouncing back from all of that is how he bounces back. He isn't taking shots of Toradol. He puts practically nothing into his body. Period. Smith-Schuster says he takes ibuprofen only in the most extreme circumstances. In fact, name your inhibitor—alcohol, nicotine, pain meds, even protein shakes—he's never wanted them in his body. The roots of this trace back to Smith-Schuster's Pop Warner days, when he broke a bone and was prescribed Tylenol for the pain. The Tylenol didn't work, so he tried ibuprofen, which made him drowsy. It was a sensation he did not enjoy one bit.
He never forgot. He chose to embrace the pain.
With, granted, a little help from one of his Samoan aunts, who'd use a combination of hot water and tea leaves to massage him—all while praying. As Mom chuckles, "That was his medicine."
Growing up in this house, no doubt, prepared Smith-Schuster for anything this 2019 season throws his way, too.
This was not a sad situation. Everyone always makes it clear that they don't want your tears.
Still, the reality is that up until college, Smith-Schuster never slept in a bed. His home in Southern California was always packed with siblings and cousins and relatives from every branch of the family tree. At one point, 23 people lived under the same roof. Whoever wanted to crash first got the couch. From there, most everyone else Tetris'ed on the floor. Smith-Schuster's go-to spot was the corner of the garage with nothing but a thin blanket between him and the concrete.
After his parents lost their jobs and house, this was home for eight years.
So you bet Smith-Schuster cherished his first bed at USC. He kept the same one for all three years.
Smith-Schuster's late grandmother, affectionately known as "Big Mama," owned this house and opened it up to all family members in need. Such is the Samoan culture. Says Sammy: "We love, we love, we love everybody. We embrace everybody. We were just rich with love."
Each child had one blanket and one pillow, and that was enough.
Food was scarce with up to four full families in the same home at the same time, so they'd all eat buffet-style—"first come, first served," Smith-Schuster recalls.
The weekends consisted of BBQs and ultracompetitive card games and board games.
Smith-Schuster changed his share of baby diapers along the way, too.
He never asked for much. He made one pair of sneakers last until they couldn't function. But by God, did Smith-Schuster want a PlayStation when he was 10 years old. Sammy couldn't afford it, not at $250 with all the controllers and everything, so Big Mama told JuJu that she'd give him $20 for each touchdown he scored on his youth team. Sure enough, there was Smith-Schuster three games later, after a five-touchdown game. He raced into his grandmother's clothing shop. "Big Mama! Big Mama!" he yelled. "I got it! Five touchdowns!"
That's when the gamer in Smith-Schuster was born, and that's when he learned a valuable lesson: Everything always had to be earned.
Hours of Fortnite don't mean a thing if he isn't training like an Olympian just as often.
It's no wonder Steelers veterans were miffed at the sight of Smith-Schuster as a rookie just sitting in the meeting room, not taking any notes, not even holding a pen. "Man," Darrius Heyward-Bey said at the time, "you ain't going to write anything down?" Smith-Schuster instead listened to his coach intently—eyes fixated on the film, on precisely what was being taught—and then he applied it all to the field.
With ease. With a photographic memory.
Smith-Schuster insists he could play any position on the field. Give him an hour, and he'd have running back "down pat."
"It's crazy, because people are writing notes and writing this and that down. I can't function like that," he says. "I see the plays, I scan it, keep it in my memory."
If there's an adjustment to make, it's in his mind. Against every type of coverage, he knows he has this route or that route or must block a linebacker at a specific angle.
"By the time I go out there…"
Smith-Schuster snaps his fingers.
He's not sure where this gift comes from, but it's the same reason that for as long as he can remember, he has been able to assimilate with kids older than himself.
Mom knew it was there. She registered Smith-Schuster into school at four years old despite a counselor warning that this could stunt his growth. The moment Smith-Schuster fell behind, the concerned counselor told her, he'd be held back. Period. The first parent-teacher conference arrived soon enough and, lo and behold, the reports were glowing. Smith-Schuster was learning at a faster rate than kids one and two years older than him. By the time he was six, he told his mother he'd attend Long Beach Poly for high school one day, then play at USC, then go to the NFL.
And now, as Mom says, he is still mature "beyond his years."
In the NFL, it's meant becoming the youngest player to score a touchdown since 1964, the youngest to catch a touchdown since 1930, and he has now passed Randy Moss as the youngest receiver ever to reach 2,500 receiving yards.
"In JuJu's world," Sammy says, "nothing is impossible."
So on April 7, there he was. Handling a sucker punch with effortless grace. At precisely 2:10 p.m. ET, Antonio Brown dragged his ex-teammate into the Twitter ring and took a swing. When a fan reminded Brown that Smith-Schuster had been voted team MVP, Brown blamed Smith-Schuster for fumbling away Pittsburgh's playoff chances. One hour later, Smith-Schuster offered a peaceful response. And when Brown tried to stick it to Smith-Schuster, when he posted a DM Smith-Schuster had sent him back when he was still at USC, what was inside Al Capone's vault?
An innocent message in which Smith-Schuster politely introduced himself, called Brown "a great man on and off the field" and asked for any advice.
There is no relationship between the two now—"I don't talk to him," Smith-Schuster says, blankly—but Smith-Schuster also doesn't spike the football. He says he learned plenty from Brown about work ethic, about adapting to other QBs when Roethlisberger goes down.
One day, the difference between how these two former teammates use social media will be written about in textbooks. Whereas Brown OD'ed on dopamine, from Facebook Live'ing Mike Tomlin in the locker room to posting a private conversation with Jon Gruden, Smith-Schuster has provided a master class. What you see is what you get because Smith-Schuster sincerely wants to impact his community. If he feels like going to an elementary school, hell, he just shows up. Lately, he's felt the urge to give back to senior citizens. Because of "Big Mama," and because he says he has always vibed well with seniors.
Told that what he's trying to do is impossible, that there's only so much time available to help, Smith-Schuster cuts in.
"You make time. People say they don't have time. You make time," he says. "There's always time."
And when he's at work, it's time to work. He knows firsthand from 2018 that drama and distractions do matter inside a locker room.
"Of course," Smith-Schuster says. "That's something where we all have to be on the same page—to go win a Super Bowl. I think that's what everyone here is about. And that's what we're doing."
Mature, for sure. Maybe this is why what appears to all of us as the sad collapse of a franchise doesn't appear that way at all to Smith-Schuster. Through the Jaguars embarrassment. Through that crushing fumble in New Orleans. Through losing those three Hall of Fame talents. Through AB's heel turn.
Through his position coach dying.
He can handle all of it.
He stares back down at his hands, the ones battered at USC that have now caught 186 balls in the pros. Specifically, he eyes up the three rubber wristbands on each hand and spins them around to reveal messages inscribed. These are the words Steelers receivers coach Darryl Drake would often repeat.
When drama seeped into the locker room in 2018. When Brown left in 2019.
"The first thing he said was, 'Shut out the noise. Don't let the outside people distract us,'" Smith-Schuster says. "And when you're working hard, 'Never choose good when great's available.' Those are two quotes I live by every day. Day by day. I look at my wrists and just remind myself."
Drake was found unresponsive in his training camp dorm room in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 11. At 62 years old.
The Steelers canceled two days of practice and hired grief counselors. And when the team returned to the field? The visual of Roethlisberger consoling Smith-Schuster captured his heartache. Helmet on, his face buried in clasped hands, all emotion pouring out.
How Drake coached is how Smith-Schuster always aspired to play—"finishing the play," he says. So he wears these bands 24/7. They never come off. He's dedicating this season to Drake, and Drake's family, too.
"I was devastated," Smith-Schuster says. "There are no words to explain how I felt. It's just something that we all go through. It sucks."
His words grind to a halt.
He stares down at the floor, zoned out, as if it doesn't matter if another question is even asked.
Behind those dark Oakleys, it's impossible to tell if tears are welling up again.
Veterans hand it to Smith-Schuster. The empire he's built is damn impressive. His personality has fueled major endorsement deals with Pepsi, Doritos and HyperX. More impressive to them, though, is how swiftly he makes that "Bad JuJu" switch. Guard Ramon Foster, a Steeler since 2009, calls Smith-Schuster "Hines Ward-esque" and can see that he's carving his own path in the post-Brown landscape.
Trying to "go against that."
Everyone agrees Smith-Schuster is a leader in the receivers room and beyond.
From Foster: "Guys have to fall under him. The stuff that he does day to day, they will mimic him, too. It will be a great precedence set if he can change that room to be like-minded like himself."
To receiver Donte Moncrief: "When it comes down to the field, he knows how to turn it on."
To running back James Conner, who notes that for all the fun YouTubing, the city relates most to Smith-Schuster's stiff-arms, devastating blocks and willingness to go across the middle.
"He could leave a great legacy," Conner says, "being one of the great Pittsburgh Steeler receivers. He's already had a lot of great plays, but I know he's going to make a lot more."
Like his 76-yard touchdown against the 49ers in Week 3, when he lulled Ahkello Witherspoon to sleep…pinned a 3rd-and-4 ball against his facemask…shucked away a defender…and sped away from everyone up the left sideline.
Of course, Pittsburgh lost anyway.
And that's the problem. A wide receiver can only do so much. Smith-Schuster could walk on water, but unless the ball's accurately thrown his way, there's not much he can do—with the weight of permanent, colossal expectations on his shoulders. Since 1971, the Steelers have had only seven losing seasons. Three head coaches have overseen five decades of winning. The mere suggestion of rebuilding is taboo here.
When Canton-bound QBs go down on other teams, the season is effectively toast.
Not here, Foster says.
"The pressure of being here won't allow that. The mentality of us. Maybe the spotlight's off, but the show is still going," says Foster. "You see how it is. Historically through here. That's the biggest part of counting us out—OK, keep thinking that. Same as when Ben came in. JuJu came in and fell into a spot himself. And James. Think about it. Here, historically, the show rolls on."
Long ago, Roethlisberger replaced Tommy Maddox (and went 13-0). Just as Conner replaced Bell (and rushed for 973 yards and 12 scores in 13 games) and Smith-Schuster replaced Brown (and won the city's heart).
Pittsburgh, a city with 300-plus steel-related businesses, has been described as the "poster child for managing industrial transition" by Dr. Robert Mauro. Now, it's on Smith-Schuster to do exactly that with the football team. To serve as the heartbeat of Littsburgh.
"They embrace people who are really physical," he says, "and do the dirty work."
He's seen the clips of Lynn Swann fully horizontal in the Super Bowl. And Franco Harris finger-tipping—cough, out of frame, cough—an Immaculate Reception. And Troy Polamalu leaping over the line of scrimmage. There are so many iconic moments from so many iconic players through Pittsburgh's history. And while calling them all "unbelievable," Smith-Schuster does not feel like reminiscing.
"I'm trying to create my own memories," he says, "and trying to build my own legacy here."
That legacy, he says, will be a player who did everything in his power to help the team win. Who poured himself into every single play of every single game. Such words don't feel like a regurgitated cliche here, either, because Smith-Schuster has the scars to prove this isn't B.S. And the genes. The brain. The heart. So much more than anything anyone's seen online.
To all of us, the Steelers appear doomed. Not to him.
"If you can ride with us, ride. If you can't, don't. We're the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're going to be here regardless."
The AC in the room hums. His voice is slightly above a whisper.
Smith-Schuster knows a leader here is needed, and that it's his time.
"That comes," he says, "with being The Guy."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.