Editor's note: As JuJu Smith-Schuster prepares for what should be a big role in Sunday's divisional-round game against the Jaguars, we look back at a day when the youngest player in the NFL invited ESPN's Jeremy Fowler into his house for a closer look at how he spends an afternoon. This piece originally ran on Oct. 13.
PITTSBURGH -- When JuJu Smith-Schuster says life is "lit all the time," he can prove it in wattage.
A wall switch turns his bedroom into a Las Vegas club. Reds and blues and greens beam from the base of a vibrating mattress.
“I can move it up while I’m watching TV, playing video games, having a great time and just chilling,” Smith-Schuster said. “JuJu’s always lit. Chef Ju's always lit.”
These aren’t two different personalities as much as a collaborative experience, which is on display on a lazy Tuesday, a Pittsburgh Steelers off day.
The NFL’s youngest player is far from off.
Over the course of 75 minutes in a two-bedroom apartment on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Smith-Schuster bounces from couch to kitchen to hallway like a Jack Russell terrier.
"Chef Ju" is measured and focused as he cooks stir-fry for lunch. He wears full culinary garb purchased at a local boutique and studiously follows online cooking videos for proper measurements and garlic-slicing techniques.
But JuJu (real name John) always seems to emerge for a mood adjustment: elaborate dancing mid-stir, a sudden Kool-Aid craving and binge "Call of Duty" sessions from a bean bag next to a multicolored Gushers blanket and a stuffed Minion he named “It’s Lit.”
The Steelers rookie receiver is 20 going on 12 going on 30, depending on the moment, or who you ask.
“Hyper,” Steelers running back James Conner said.
“Dances all the time,” tight end Jesse James said.
“Might push things a little too far at times,” quarterback Josh Dobbs said with a smile.
All three echo the same qualifier, though: mature football player.
A glimpse into Smith-Schuster’s life reveals how he marries youthful exuberance with a work ethic that vaulted him into the Steelers’ starting slot receiver spot before his 21st birthday, which isn’t until Nov. 22.
Cooking with 'Chef Ju'
The multitasking is exhausting and requires at least two technological devices at a time.
Smith-Schuster is explaining his cooking session to ESPN, while he’s live-streaming the same session on his Instagram account. Every Tuesday, he cooks a new dish for an audience of up to 10,000.
Travis Scott tracks usually bang in the background -- “He’s always keeping it lit,” JuJu says -- but today he doesn’t need music to dance.
“Whipping in the kitchen. Whipping in the kitchen. Yeah!” Smith-Schuster says as he sways from left to right while stirring broccoli, snow peas and carrots.
Dancing comes in waves of about eight seconds, until he bolts to the living room to tend to his "Call of Duty" gaming session. A headset can connect him with up to 400 players at a time. Being without an electronic device for longer than a few minutes feels “weird,” he says.
A pre-meal dilemma arrives.
“I try to play fast because I’m hungry," Smith-Schuster says. "I want to eat, but also, I want to do the video game."
The best option: Do both. Smith-Schuster plays, pauses, then heads back to the kitchen. Meanwhile, a disco ball that he bought at Spencer’s sets the living room vibe.
No microwaves allowed. Smith-Schuster buys all the fresh ingredients Tuesday morning and cooks from scratch, cutting chicken with precision and marinating with care. The secret ingredient is a can of ginger purchased at Giant Eagle for $3.99.
Smith-Schuster asks the camera if anyone has good chicken-slicing advice. His manager, who’s holding his phone, eventually notices another suggestion from a fan watching the stream: “Wife me.”
Smith-Schuster always admired the Samoan-style cooking of his mother, Sammy, who he says kept her then-teenage son on dish duty, “hand-wash only.”
Once he left USC as a 20-year-old junior (he started elementary school a year early), Smith-Schuster realized cooking is not only a good skill for a single young adult, but a new way to bond with mom. He usually FaceTimes her from the store for tips.
In the corner of the hallway, a dry-erase board bears a message: “I love you son. See you soon.”
Cleaning with JuJu
Smith-Schuster, who legally added the last part of his name in honor of his stepfather, says up to 25 family members lived in his childhood home (he can name everyone too). This setup left him without his own room. Operating in small spaces required cleanliness.
His apartment whiteboard has clear cleaning instructions, red marker for the sections in all caps:
-TAKE OUT TRASH
-Clean living room
-Go to school for food
-Rest of laundry
-Put up mirror
The tidy tendencies appear after an impromptu Nerf gun shooting session. The pellets fly while Smith-Schuster wears a Steelers helmet and tells the camera that those who pay the bills “can do whatever you want.”
Minutes later, he’s on the ground picking up pellets.
“My locker room is like that, bed is like that -- keep it clean,” Smith-Schuster said.
Cleaning calls to mind a Smith-Schuster locker-room prank. A few weeks back, Smith-Schuster crept up on a gang of Steelers, two of whom -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and Dobbs -- don’t have hair because of alopecia.
“Who’s cleaner?” asked Smith-Schuster as he filmed their heads with his phone camera.
“You’re so childish,” Shazier said in the moment.
A few weeks later, Shazier said, “I thought it was funny,”
Dobbs said the moment played out like the meme of Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man.
“He does extra things sometimes. That’s just him,” Dobbs said. “He’s a funny guy, and he studies his butt off.”
Game over, let's eat
Smith-Schuster drops the camouflage controller and announces "Chef Ju" is headed back to the kitchen.
The sugar high is about to take flight.
He pours a gallon of water into a decanter, then slowly pulls out a container of Kool-Aid Tropical Punch and embraces it like a childhood friend.
It sort of was. He didn’t like water, so Kool-Aid was a compromise.
“This is the best thing going,” Smith-Schuster says.
While mixing, he opens the pantry to showcase 13 boxes of Gushers (he doesn’t eat them every day, he swears), then proudly tastes the finished product.
“Boy, that’s some good chicken now,” Smith-Schuster said. “That looks so good, huh?”
He takes his plate and drink to the living room, because it’s time to game while he eats. Gaming a few hours a day is a nice release from the grind of football, Smith-Schuster says.
On the couch is where he can savor the moment as a rookie receiver on a contender, eating good food while overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline. He’s a few blocks from the Steelers facility, to which he rides a bike (he’s working on his driver's license, with driving help from left tackle Alejandro Villanueva).
Smith-Schuster has been known to deliver big open-field hits, but the JuJu experience off the field couldn’t be less threatening.
Or less lit.
“I’m always happy, having fun, just having a great time,” Smith-Schuster says.