Kevin Gorman: Steelers enjoy having JuJu Smith-Schuster on that beat
Whether it's his touchdown celebrations, response to a teammate's criticism or the saga of his stolen bike, Steelers Nation can't get enough of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The 20-year-old rookie receiver has become Pittsburgh's proverbial golden child, a social media star whose NFL career appears to be on a similar trajectory.
Smith-Schuster again will be in the spotlight when the Steelers play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on NBC's Sunday Night Football, the focus on football and follies.
“I think it's another opportunity to not only showcase my talent but to showcase our offense and our defense,” Smith-Schuster said. “For us to be on prime time, usually we're playing early and watching other guys play at night. We're going to be together, and everybody is going to be watching us, so for us to go out there and show the world what Steeler Nation is about will be pretty fun.”
Nobody knows fun like JuJu, who spent Thursday mugging for the PPG Paints Arena scoreboard at a Penguins game and Friday night in costume as Instagram alias Chef JuJu at the 96.1 KISS Halloween party at Stage AE.
“JuJu just brings that fun to the mix,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “He could (be quiet), but that's not his personality. He's being true to himself, and the great thing about being a Pittsburgh Steeler is we allow you to be you, within the guidelines of respecting the game and respecting the Rooneys.
“The great thing about it is, when it comes to the meeting rooms and time to pay attention, he's a pro. He knows how to turn that switch on and off. He's been a delight to be around.”
After entertaining the Heinz Field crowd with his hide-and-seek celebration with Le'Veon Bell after a 31-yard touchdown catch against Cincinnati last Sunday, Smith-Schuster provided a delicious diversion to the Steelers' latest controversy.
It started when Martavis Bryant responded to an Instagram post claiming that JuJu is better by saying that he's “nowhere near better than me, fool. All they need to do is give me what I want and y'all can have JuJu and whoever else.”
The Steelers and their fans wrapped their arms around Smith-Schuster when he answered those comments with a class that belies his youth, then acted his age when his beloved bike was stolen from his South Side apartment.
It quickly went viral, with Smith-Schuster taking his social media stardom to another stratosphere while adding laughter and levity to the locker room amid Bryant being benched.
“We had some incidents where we've had some huge distractions on this team, in negative ways,” said Smith-Schuster, who doesn't own a car but plans to take his driver's license test Tuesday. “For myself, life's too short to have negative vibes around, especially on our team.
“I'm not here to cause distractions, especially as a rookie or a young guy. I'm just here to get my job done. I'm spreading my young vibes around to the older guys, to keep them going.”
That's the beauty of JuJu, who became the youngest NFL player to score a touchdown since Chicago's Andy Livingston in 1964, the youngest to catch a touchdown pass since Green Bay's Arnie Herber in 1930 and the youngest ever to catch three touchdowns — all before his 21st birthday, Nov. 22.
His productivity, with 17 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns, is matching his playfulness.
“I think he's the youngest guy in the NFL, and sometimes he acts like it, which is fun,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “What I like about him the most is you can talk to him, and he can almost snap out of it real quick and can become a mature football player that is disciplined and wants to hear it and you can help him.”
No wonder Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Smith-Schuster fits the mold of “football player first,” a description he defined as a receiver who plays the game with a linebacker mentality, especially as a blocker.
And he's a kid with a conscience, knowing his newfound fame will bring endorsement opportunities but first focusing on creating a foundation. His charity idea? Bike donations.
When JuJu isn't making light of his situation, he's making the most of it and disproving any doubters.
“It means a lot,” Smith-Schuster said. “A lot of times when I met with teams at the combine, a lot of them said, ‘Is he mature enough?' Yeah, I'm 20 years old. I like to have fun. But when it's time to get work done, I'll get it done. I can tell, it doesn't matter what age you are in this sport or any sport — or anything you do — if you really put your heart into it, practice makes perfect.”
And JuJu has been the perfect personality to add to the Steelers, one who has everyone awaiting his next touchdown just to enjoy the celebration.