JuJu Smith-Schuster, a Steelers rookie receiver, delivered his signature moment Sunday night when he celebrated a 97-yard touchdown reception by fastening a silver chain around a stationary bike on the sideline. Earlier in the night, he wore size-14 black cleats with hand-painted highlighter-yellow bicycles beside the words, "HAVE YOU SEEN MY BIKE?" and "FOUND IT!"
To his mother, Sammy Schuster, the shoes and the whole stolen-bike saga, which circulated far and wide on social media last week, showed her son's sense of humor. He's always been full of energy, she said, full of joy. At home in Long Beach, Calif., Smith-Schuster, the second-oldest of seven children in his family, will play Madden with his brothers, let his little sisters paint his toenails and then summon his siblings outdoors for a water-balloon fight in the backyard.
But there's another pair of cleats, Sammy said, which showed her son's heart and humility. One summer when Smith-Schuster was in middle school, his parents bought him cleats — size 12, like the previous year. He knew they couldn't afford another pair, so rather than say the shoes were two sizes too small, he wore them all season and taped his feet as tightly as he could.
"It just brings tears to my eyes," Sammy said recently. "He never complained. It's a funny story now, because if you see his toes, he has the ugliest toes. He'll probably kill me because I'm saying this. He blames me for them. ... He went out there knowing his feet would hurt, knowing he couldn't ask for more. He knew it. But he fought through it, and here we are today."
Smith-Schuster said he learned from his parents how to make the best of any situation, even after they lost their jobs — Sammy worked at a hotel, and Lawrence Schuster, Smith-Schuster's stepfather, drove an oil tanker to airports in Southern California — and lost their home. The family of nine moved into the garage of Smith-Schuster's grandmother's home.
They lived there for eight years, until Smith-Schuster's third and final year at Southern California. "When in doubt, that was the house to go to," he said, with 20 to 25 people there at once. Smith-Schuster left the bunk beds along the garage wall for his younger siblings. He slept on the concrete floor, with one blanket folded underneath him and another over top.
"You can imagine that when I walked into my son's place (in Pittsburgh), I couldn't help but be in tears," Sammy said. "I'm like, you have all this space now, when before you slept on the floor in the corner of the garage. And here you are."
Smith-Schuster's name tells much of his story. His birth name? John Smith.
"Very simple," Smith-Schuster said, laughing. "Very Pocahontas-like character."
When he was 6 months old, an aunt called him "John John," Sammy recalled. For a week, no one else used the nickname, so the aunt declared, "No, I'm going to call you JuJu." And this one stuck. While JuJu is a far more colorful name, Smith-Schuster said, he still uses the name "John Smith" when it's convenient, such as when he's requesting a private dinner reservation.
"If I want to be bothered, I use JuJu," he said. "If I don't want to be bothered, I say John. I always tell myself my life is like Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. It's a good scenario."
Smith-Schuster was 4 when Sammy met Lawrence Schuster, whom she married two years later. Not long after, Sammy said, Smith-Schuster asked if he could change his last name. His biological father refused, according to Sammy, so she told the boy he'd have to wait until he was 18. She figured he'd forget. But on his 18th birthday, Smith-Schuster texted his mother.
"Let's start the process," he wrote.
"What process?" she asked.
"Changing my last name."
It wasn't a decision Smith-Schuster took lightly, he said, but it wasn't a particularly difficult one either. Lawrence was a father figure in a way his biological father, Lee Smith, was not. "For him to step into my life and take on me and my older sister," Smith-Schuster said, "that meant a lot." So when he started his sophomore season at USC, he was JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Lawrence grew up in American Samoa, raised on football and rugby, and moved to Los Angeles when he was 12. He started Smith-Schuster in football mostly to keep him out of trouble in the neighborhood, but he quickly saw talent. When Smith-Schuster was 6 or 7, his mother recalled, he said, "Mom, I'm going to Long Beach Poly and I'm going to USC."
Smith-Schuster did both, but not before Snoop Dogg, a die-hard Steelers fan, nicknamed him "SportsCenter," saying the dazzle the kid showed on the field in the Snoop Youth Football League would one day end up on ESPN.
Perhaps the only roadblock which could have stopped Smith-Schuster's ascent to the NFL was rugby. He started playing when he was 12 to stay in shape during the football offseason, and he was hooked. "He fell in love with the sport," Lawrence said. "He almost quit football to play rugby." Midway through high school, however, he had to pick one sport.
"Gotta go where the money is at," Smith-Schuster said, admitting his rugby physicality transfers nicely to football when he has to run a crossing route or needs to block a linebacker.
Sammy figures she was at fault for the bike heist last week. In Pittsburgh for a visit, she went to a painting class Monday night and took with her the key to her son's South Side apartment. When Smith-Schuster returned from the Steelers practice facility, he locked the bike outside the apartment complex, rather than inside like usual. The next morning, the bicycle was gone.
Watching the situation go viral was "hilarious," she said, especially once the bike was returned. During college, Smith-Schuster used an AirWheel — basically a one-wheeled Segway with no handlebars — to get back and forth between campus and his home. To get home to Long Beach, he called for a ride or took an Uber. "This kid Ubers everywhere," Sammy said.
That could change this week. Smith-Schuster, after weeks of preparation and practice with offensive tackle Alejandro Villenueva, will take his driver's test Tuesday. He plans to buy a Toyota Prius for his first car. Teammates say Smith-Schuster, who turns 21 Nov. 22, has been an energy infusion in the locker room, and he certainly has been embraced by the fan base.
"If I do cause distractions," Smith-Schuster said, "they're positive distractions."
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