From Antisocial to Internet Icon: Juju Smith-Schuster’s Rise to Stardom

Will Mallory
Dec 26, 2018 · 5 min read
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Smith-Schuster greets the Pittsburg crowd during a game. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster spiraled towards the ground with 41 seconds remaining in perhaps the final chance to save a plummeting season. The 2nd year wideout had already recorded 110 yards on ten receptions in a Dec. 23 matchup against the New Orleans Saints — adding to an impressive 1,300-yard season at just 22 years old — but in this game, nobody would remember the stats.

Right before he hit the ground, Smith-Schuster lost control of the football. The recovery, made by Saints veteran linebacker Demario Davis, was a pivotal factor in the Steelers’ season and placed their playoff hopes in the hands of divisional rival Baltimore Ravens.

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THE FUMBLE: Smith-Schuster fumbled as he was spun to the ground by a Saints’ defender. (Photo Credit: AP/Butch Dill)

Smith-Schuster kneeled at the 35-yard line with his helmet facing the turf as the Superdome erupted in celebration. He knew his turnover was costly. He knew he had lost them the game.

But what Smith-Schuster didn’t recognize was how insignificant this moment was in the big picture of his young career. The Steelers had lost three of their last four games and this fumble marked one of many turnovers lost by several of his teammates in the last few weeks — and besides, nobody could guarantee that Chris Boswell would have made the game-tying kick anyway.

Nevertheless, the young superstar tweeted an apology to his 790k Twitter followers following the game.

As you can see, the former USC wideout was not pleased with his performance. But without his production this season — nearly 100 yards more than 7-time Pro-Bowler Antonio Brown — the Steelers arguably wouldn’t even be in the playoff hunt.

Multiple athletes voiced their support for Smith-Schuster after the loss, including Giants’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint my brotha,” Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said in an Instagram comment. “Enjoy the journey. The highs and lows, ride them all with positive vibrations.”

Ironically, #19 posted one week earlier about the importance of his play in the game in New Orleans.

“A lot on the line this week. The whole season comes down to this. Yes, I’m talking about the fantasy football championship round. Of course I’m playing Sunday!!! Theres no way I can let down the real ones who believed in me by drafting me!! Let’s get it!! 🏆🏆”

Smith-Schuster’s posts are one example of how the young athlete use social media to reach fans across the world. But the rising star wasn’t always on social media. Just three years ago, the young superstar was completely absent from Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Now, 2.1 million Instagram followers and over 2,300 tweets later, the Long Beach native continues to inspire others across the world with his energetic presence media platforms.

Smith-Schuster, drafted in the second round by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft, posted an impressive rookie season, recording 917 yards and seven touchdowns in only 14 games. After the departure of Martavis Bryant in the offseason, Smith-Schuster was expected to fill the WR2 spot in his sophomore season behind Pro-Bowler Antonio Brown — and he did just that.

I was lucky enough to run into the talented wideout this past summer at the University of Southern California with a group of high-school journalists. He told us about his experience in the NFL and how he always looks for opportunities to have fun whenever he can.

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Smith-Schuster speaks to high school journalists in June 2018.

“Obviously, I’m going to have fun, especially with the celebrations,” Smith-Schuster said. “To this day, I live life to the fullest. But when that whistle blows, I’m going to do what I need to do to score.”

In 2017, Smith-Schuster was one of the youngest players in the NFL. After three seasons with 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns at USC, he declared for the draft, boosting his social media presence and increasing his following.

Smith-Schuster shakes a tackle for a touchdown against Idaho in the Coliseum in a 59–9 USC victory. (Photo credit: Press-Enterprise)

In addition to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, Smith-Schuster started a YouTube channel to reach his younger fans. He said that he believes it creates a platform where he can expand his following to followers of all ages who may not be on some of the traditional social media apps.

“Kids from three to fourteen, they don’t have phones, but they are on YouTube, and that’s all they watch,” Smith-Schuster said. “Everyone can watch, and you’ve got ten minutes to get personal with your fans.”

The jump from being inactive to a social media celebrity was definitely a big one for Smith-Schuster, but he said that he now believes that social media is a means to spread positivity.

“I used to be anti-social media because I thought it was negative and one post could ruin your career,” Smith-Schuster said. “When I got to the league, though, I got people to run my social media, and I say what I want to post but then they post it for me. My social media is always about positivity.”

Karan Gill, CEO of Visionary Sports and one of Smith-Schuster’s social media advisors, told Inc. Magazine that he believes athletes around the world aren’t persistent enough when it comes to social media.

“I am a huge believer in the maintenance and consistency of social media,” Gill said. “Fans are thirsting for authenticity from athletes. In today’s day and age of media coverage, athletes are so hesitant to show what they truly are like.”

Gill added that Smith-Schuster is extremely easy to work with because of his outgoing personality.

“JuJu has an incredible, fun personality. He wore a Minions backpack around USC for class and to be different,” Gill told Inc. “So with my knowledge of the social media space in terms of what gets significant traction among fans, we are a perfect fit.”

Through all of the ups and downs of Smith-Schuster sophomore season in the NFL, there is no doubt that he will keep his fans updated by spreading happiness and positivity. The young star has a long road ahead of him, so he may as well make it enjoyable.

“It’s cool to see people all over the country say, ‘that’s Juju’,” Smith-Schuster said. “I think it is super great to connect with fans and have fun, like I’m doing here now.”

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