Smith-Schuster first came to town as a second-round draft pick out of USC in 2017 and, after the initial angst over not taking a corner (despite the fact that few were left after a record number of them were selected by that point), most folks quickly got on board with the selection.
Save for receiver Martavis Bryant, of course, who tweeted: “lol that’s Sammie coates replacement not minds take it how you want to I am back.”
Poor Martavis, he was so wrong on that one. Smith-Schuster did replace Coates on the roster, but he also replaced Bryant as the number two receiver halfway through the 2017 season. It wasn’t long before Bryant was shipped off to the Raiders, thus proving himself to be quite the anti-prophet.
You know the story on Smith-Schuster; he started off as a breath of fresh air, an extremely productive receiver who also seemed to enjoy himself on and off the field. He was always on social media doing his thing. He was always out in the community and did things like sign his own jersey for an unsuspecting Steelers fan who just purchased it. He agreed to attend a kid’s prom after that kid’s girlfriend broke up with him. His teammates loved him. Alejandro Villanueva even taught Smith-Schuster how to drive during his rookie season.
I went to the 2018 training camp with my young niece, and as far as she was concerned, Smith-Schuster was the greatest Steelers player who ever lived. Many other children seemed to feel the same way that day, as they cheered for Smith-Schuster like he was the second coming of Mickey Mouse.
Smith-Schuster went on to have an even better second season than he did in his rookie campaign, catching 111 passes and being voted the team’s MVP in 2018.
This seemed to ruffle the feathers of the always ruffled Antonio Brown and appeared to contribute greatly to the demise of his relationship with the young receiver as well as his employer, the Steelers.
I don’t think things were ever quite the same for Smith-Schuster after 2018, same for the Steelers as an organization.
Thanks in large part to some less-than-stellar quarterback and offensive line play, Smith-Schuster’s productivity dropped off significantly after 2018, as he caught a combined 154 passes for 1512 yards and 12 touchdowns from Week 1 of the 2019 campaign through Week 5 of 2021 when he was lost for the rest of the regular season with a shoulder injury.
During that time, Smith-Schuster went from being an extremely beloved fan-favorite to a polarizing figure who, according to many fans and some media members, prioritized his social media activity and his brand over the game of football.
Was that fair? Probably not, but when championships aren’t being won, there has to be a reason, and Smith-Schuster, thanks to logo dances and milkcrate challenges, became the perfect scapegoat—especially for a certain local radio personality who seemed to spearhead the polarization of Smith-Schuster.
In my opinion, it’s just plain stupid to blame stuff like social media behavior and even logo dancing for not winning football games, but, ironically enough, social media shows us time and time again how eager people are to give their stupid opinions.
Smith-Schuster probably would have been a universally beloved Steelers player in a previous era, but it’s hard for any athlete to escape polarization in this social media and opinion-driven climate we now find ourselves in.
Smith-Schuster signed a one-year deal to play for the Chiefs, which means he could actually be back with the Steelers one day (these things happen all the time in the world of sports).
But if Smith-Schuster never plays for the Steelers again, I’ll always remember how hard he competed and how much fun he made the game of football to watch. I’ll also remember how universally beloved he was before those that think athletes should be focused on their craft 24/7/365 slung enough mud to change the perception of him.
JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t every Steeler fan’s cup of tea, but he probably should have been.