With all the drama the Steelers produced this past season, it’s been hard to focus on the positives and Juju Smith-Schuster’s rapid rise to stardom was buried beneath the Pittsburgh soap opera. Smith-Schuster hasn’t just improved from his rookie season, the 22-year-old is arguably one of the elite wide receivers after he finished fifth in the league in receiving yards and garnered his first invitation to the Pro Bowl in Orlando.
In addition to his growth on the field, Smith-Schuster’s brand has skyrocketed off it as well. You’ve seen him step into the gaming world, playing Fortnite with Ninja, Travis Scott, and Drake. You’ve seen him become a part-time YouTuber. He’s built a loyal fanbase, and with Le’Veon Bell’s and Antonio Brown’s potential departures, and Ben Roethlisberger only a few years away from retirement, you could be looking at the next face of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His popularity has grown to the point where he ranked first amongst wide receivers and seventh overall in jersey sales according to Dick’s Sporting Goods NFL Jersey Report.
“It’s amazing,” Smith-Schuster says. “I was just in Hawaii and I had fans out there repping my jersey and here at the Pro Bowl in Orlando, there are fans repping my jersey. It makes me so happy..”
We caught up with Smith-Schuster to talk about his breakout season, his fun night with Drake, Travis Scott, and Ninja, and the NFL in general.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
It’s year two, and you’re already in the Pro Bowl amongst some of the best players in the league. That’s a pretty quick jump. How does that feel?
It’s a blessing. It feels great man. I couldn’t have done this without my teammates and coaches. I’ve always been hungry. After year one, the vets told me it was going to get harder during year two and year three so I got to keep proving myself. As I said, it’s just great to be selected amongst the top players.
The Patriots always have a good chance, they’re always in it and doing great. I’m pretty sure all of Boston is rooting for the Patriots but I’m going for the Rams.
Let’s talk about Juju off the field, is it true you would be a Twitch streamer if you didn’t play in the NFL
Yeah man, I’d definitely be a Twitch streamer and a Youtuber.
You played Fornite with Drake Travis Scott, and Ninja. How’d that happen and what’s that like?
I’ve built a good relationship with Ninja over time and at that point, he was just like, “Yo you down to play tonight?” He put a squad together. The other people were Drake and Travis Scott. It was unbelievable. Ever since then, I’ve been cool with those people and I still talk to them here and there so it definitely changed my life especially in the gaming world.
You posted a heartfelt apology to fans and eventually a motivational video about your fumble against the Saints, how much has that miscue is motivating you for next season?
It motivates me a lot, man. I’ve always been tough on myself about letting the ball go and fumbling. It hurt a lot at that moment and time. Even though I went through pain and adversity, I learned. I’m very motivated to be working even harder, getting stronger, working on my ball security. I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I see a lot of people who try to hide after a mistake like that, but for myself, I had accept full responsibility of what happened.
Staying on the topic of the Saints, you may not have watched the game but I’m sure you saw the headlines on the no-call on the pass interference. If you lost a game with a controversial play like that, how would you respond?
It’s tough man. It’s the NFL. It’s hard because some of those calls you can’t trip over but I understand where the Saints are coming from and I understand where Michael Thomas is coming from. If it’s a rule in the book, you have to acknowledge it and play by the rules. It what it is. It’s a real tough call. You just have to live with it and move forward.
How cool is it that you’re No. 7 in the NFL in jersey sales and No. 1 amongst wide receivers in your second year as a pro?
It’s amazing. Growing up as a kid, I used to watch people like Michael Vick and Reggie Bush, and rep their jerseys. I walk around Pittsburgh and see fans support and they show so much love. I was just in Hawaii and I had fans out there repping my jersey and here at the Pro Bowl in Orlando, there are fans repping my jersey. You see it everywhere. It makes me so happy. I’m blessed to be No. 7 amongst some the best guys in the NFL.
We’ve seen go undercover as a reporter, as Santa, you’re very active off the field, putting your foot in plenty of different areas. What’s next for you this offseason?
I’m trying to get better on and off the field, improve my brand, making a lot more YouTube videos. I have some crazy videos coming out soon. I have five or six in the box right now. This Pro Bowl will be really exciting and I’ll have content from there too. Like I said, improving my brand.
Personal goals for you going forward?
Honestly just be better than last year and win the Super Bowl
We’ve seen NFL celebrations reach a new level this year You’ve been top tier in the league the past two years when it comes to TD celebrations, do you feel like you’re the best?
I feel like I was one of the players who started the new era of celebrations. Right now, Philadelphia, Seahawks, Vikings, Colts, those guys are doing the best team celebrations, which is the main thing and I’m working on my guys to do the same.
You’re probably not very fond of the Patriots but if you had to pick a winner for Super Bowl 53, who’d you pick?
I’m not gonna lie, I’m probably gonna go with the Rams just because I’m from LA. Being from LA, the Rams have changed the atmosphere and the vibe. LeBron [James] is in LA, the Lakers are doing their thing. The Patriots always have a good chance, they’re always in it and doing great. I’m pretty sure all of Boston is rooting for the Patriots but I’m going for the Rams. I’d be happy to see the LA franchise get the W.