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There’s more to JuJu Smith-Schuster than meets the eye

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The Steelers hit the jackpot in more ways than one when they made Smith-Schuster their second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long and heartwarming road from John Smith to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

John Smith was the name given to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 19 at birth. His parents separated when JuJu was only a small child, and his mother, Sammy Toa Schuster, married Lawrence Schuster about the time when JuJu reached school age. His stepfather took the boy under his wing, teaching him invaluable lessons about football and life.

The impact of Sammy and Lawrence on the arc of the young man’s life was crucial, and JuJu principally credits them with making his accomplishments possible. As a testament to this deep level of respect, the former JuJu Smith had his last name legally changed to “Smith-Schuster” when he turned 18 years old and had legal standing to do so. Of his stepfather, JuJu unequivocally says, “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

If you thought the nickname “JuJu” was some kind of Hollywood hype, think again. That’s a handle bestowed upon him by his aunt while he was still an infant. Perhaps she knew back then that she was holding a special child blessed with a bright future.

Before JuJu was a Steeler

As a kid, JuJu was already playing football in the Los Angeles area Little Leagues. He went on to become a high school football phenom (rated as a 5-star athlete by, 247sports and Yahoo) at Long Beach Polytechnic High. This is the high school that’s produced more NFL players than any other in the nation. JuJu’s former coach at Poly, Raul Lara, was certainly giving high praise when he motioned towards JuJu and said, “That kid right there will be one of the best ever to come out of Poly.” Later, as a star receiver for USC—compiling 3,092 yards receiving, 25 TDs and a 14.5-yard average in only three seasons—his former coach Steve Sarkisian remarked, “JuJu is, if not the most, one of the most competitive guys on our team. It’s all day, every day.”

This competitive spirit stems at least partially from the fact that Smith-Schuster was the second of seven children in his family. Furthermore, the circumstances of JuJu’s childhood were anything but easy or carefree. During his formative years, his parents lost their jobs and their home. The only option open to the family was to move into the garage of JuJu’s grandmother’s home. They lived there for eight years until his final (junior) year at USC. Throughout that period, JuJu was sleeping on a lightly padded concrete floor.

But as Steelers fans already know, JuJu has never allowed circumstances to take the fun out of life. In this respect, Steelers’ General Manager Kevin Colbert and the team’s front office deserve kudos for drafting a player who’s more than just a great athlete, but also a young man with the character to take a serious approach to the responsibilities of his career while, at the same time, knowing how and when to have fun. That’s an attribute rarely found in 20-year-olds of any generation.

It’s difficult to escape the notion that JuJu’s fun-loving side might have something to do with the heritage he shares with former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. Both men have Samoan family roots, as well as being connoisseurs of high jinks. In his leisure time, JuJu is still a kid at heart, enjoying bike riding (you knew that), video games, Kool-Aid and Minions wardrobe accessories.

Because winter is right around the corner (and also possibly due to the treacherous hills of western Pennsylvania), JuJu will soon be switching his bicycle for a driver’s license and a car. In fact, he’s lately been seen taking driving lessons from war hero/offensive lineman Alejandro Villaneuva. But JuJu probably will be keeping the bike and his AirWheel unicycle all the same.

Making his mark in Pittsburgh

Considering his rookie status, JuJu’s 424 yards receiving, four touchdowns and 17.7-yard average per catch seem to be harbingers of bigger things to come. As Pittsburgh fans recall quite well, it didn’t take very long for players like Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, Louis Lipps, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to assert themselves in the NFL. JuJu appears to already be on a similarly fast track, using his size and deceptive speed to provide a welcome bookend target for Ben Roethlisberger.

After everything that No. 19 has been through during his nearly 21 years of life (JuJu will turn 21 on November 22nd), there seems little doubt that he’ll meet the tough challenge of becoming one of the top NFL receivers. That’s a safe bet because JuJu’s life story is the quintessential American tale of succeeding against all odds by doing whatever it takes.