IT'S A RECENT Friday night in downtown Pittsburgh, and JuJu Smith-Schuster sits in a midsized hotel conference room, having just completed his promotional duties for a "Call of Duty" livestream. In one corner is a table of picked-over and forgotten food and drinks on ice. When Smith-Schuster walks in, wearing a black tee and black joggers and black Yeezy Boost 350s, he asks for a Shirley Temple, "extra cherry." After playing for more than an hour and then conducting an interview, Smith-Schuster and a few streamers invited for the event are back on the sticks, their eyes darting back and forth across the screen.
The event's lighting leaves the room a deep saffron. On one wall is the elaborate streaming setup, a row of chairs facing several TV screens, behind which are a couple of laptops -- the whole apparatus linked by a sinuous tangle of wires. The room is decorated with dining table-sized CoD posters, logo-bearing black couch pillows and the large upright orange shield, which looks a bit like an absurd headboard.
During the stream -- a mostly silent affair punctuated with gaming chatter like, "I haven't gotten the ray gun yet, it's a bucket list thing of mine" -- I lean over to Smith-Schuster's current roommate and former USC teammate, Delvon Simmons, and ask how much Smith-Schuster plays. Simmons puffs air out of his mouth, shakes his head and smiles. "Oh man," he says. "He can play all night. Sometimes I'm like, 'When did you go to sleep?'"
Smith-Schuster says, to no one in particular, "When this game drops my coaches are gonna be like, 'JuJu, you gotta focus.'" When I ask him later that night if Steelers coaches give him any grief about his gaming habits, he says no. "They know I play video games all night. It's what I do."
The CoD PR people are starting to pack up the room around us. The saffron lighting is unplugged, extension cords are spun back into coils, the posters come down, and someone mentions that Smith-Schuster has practice the next day. Smith-Schuster looks around him and says, "Hey, can I get that shield?"
His mom and marketing manager, Sammy Toa, wrinkles her nose, eyeing the four-pronged shield like a disapproving interior decorator, and says, "You really want that?"
Yes, he wants that.
"That won't even fit in your place," she says.
"There's only two of those in the world," one of the game reps says brightly, adding that they'd love for Smith-Schuster to have it.
But he's not finished. Those table-sized posters? He wants those. And a few of the game-branded pillows too. Why not? He doesn't want to compromise -- he's young and talented and blessed enough that he hasn't had to, yet. JuJu Smith-Schuster wants the extra cherry. He wants all the things.
IT'S A RECURRING joke that in an alternate, less fortunate reality, JuJu Smith-Schuster could simply have been John Smith, his given name at birth. An aunt called him John-John at first, and when that didn't stick, it became JuJu. Then, in college, he added Schuster to honor his stepfather.
Smith-Schuster was born in Long Beach, California, and is the second of seven children. Toa loves to tell the story about how her son hustled his grandmother into getting him his first PlayStation console and video game by making her a bet in middle school to give him $20 for each touchdown he scored. Sure, she said. How bad could that possibly get?
Smith-Schuster scored five times in his next game, his mother says. He earned the PlayStation in no time.
After leaving USC a year early and being selected in the second round by Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster entered the league in 2017 as a 20-year-old, the youngest player in the NFL. He has some records to show for it -- the youngest player to score a touchdown in the NFL in more than 50 years, or the youngest player to amass 1,000 all-purpose yards. But he also flat-out produced, leading all rookies in receiving touchdowns and receiving yards.
"You saw the talent, just unbelievable body control," says teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey, a nine-year veteran wide receiver who took on a mentorship role when Smith-Schuster was a rookie. "I've seen him catch at crazy angles to get his hands on the ball."
Smith-Schuster's success has continued into his second season. When the Steelers started this season 1-2-1 -- with their secondary in shambles, with Le'Veon Bell in a labor dispute that has become a bellwether of the NFL's exploitative pay structure, with Ben Roethlisberger underperforming and looking like he should have taken himself up on all that retirement talk, with Antonio Brown visibly aggravated at everything in sight and indirectly daring the team to trade him on Twitter, and worst of all with several Steelers breaking locker room omerta and speaking out against Bell, effectively standing with ownership -- football seemed to be a second priority for everyone in Pittsburgh.
But Smith-Schuster -- who has not yet become a media-trained all I love is football, football is life itself repeating bore, who still clearly wants other things -- has shined. He has led the team in yards and receptions and yards per catch and is the fifth-most-targeted wide receiver in the league. He has a flair for the spectacular -- in Week 11 against Denver, he had the second 97-yard touchdown catch of his young career; against the Raiders in Week 14, he pulled off a toe-tapping, juggling touchdown catch in the back of the end zone. In September, the Wall Street Journal declared him "the most precocious wide receiver since Randy Moss."
Roethlisberger has called Smith-Schuster's effect on the Steelers "a breath of fresh air."
Heyward-Bey describes Smith-Schuster as "everybody's little brother," a sentiment that is obvious in the locker room a few days before the Steelers blow out the Browns 33-18. After practice, Smith-Schuster is asked to do a little Halloween content for the team website. He dons a Black Panther mask and goes around asking teammates about their favorite Halloween costumes. A few minutes into this, head coach Mike Tomlin strides into the locker room, walking in a grand sweep of authoritative nods and robust daps and hardly more than two syllables at once ("all right" "good work" "yes sir"), until he spots Smith-Schuster wearing the mask and holding a microphone. Smith-Schuster turns just in time to see Tomlin stop a few feet away, face impassive but already shaking his head. The two men stare at each other for a second until the coach's trademark bordering-on-theatrical sternness dissolves and they both laugh at the same time -- Smith-Schuster ducking away bashfully after Tomlin says, "Boy, don't even come over here with that mask."
"JuJu keeps the locker room fun," says Heyward-Bey. "But, like, he's crazy."
As much as he has thrived on the field and charmed his team, Smith-Schuster also has succeeded as a savvy cultivator of his "brand." He comes up with delightful touchdown celebrations. (Hide and go seek! Giving birth to a football!) He has made himself a Pittsburgh folk hero (and earned a one-game suspension) with a crackback block that knocked out AFC North boogeyman Vontaze Burfict. T-shirts were released with a graphic image of Smith-Schuster standing over a prone Burfict and the word "karma" written boldly in all caps. (He has wisely avoided the shirts.) He dances! His social media presence is a hit! He has become the kind of person friends text you about to say, "I think he's my favorite player in the NFL!"
He can break down the demographic makeup of his followers by age, region and gender. ("Twenty-five percent women, that's pretty high!") He can explain the subtle nuance of proper tone on various social media platforms. And he refuses endorsement deals with products he doesn't use. This is very important to him.
"I want everything that's organic, everything that's naturally me," he says. "So 'Call of Duty.' Video games. I love video games. Pizza. So we did Pizza Hut."
I interrupt. Pizza Hut is organically you?
"That's organic JuJu. I'm not going to do Subway when I don't like Subway. I won't promote something that I don't want."
He seems to live with the fear of one day endorsing a toothpaste or deodorant he doesn't actually use, only to be found out. I try to assure him no one is ever going to investigate his toiletries.
But he's insistent on this: "You have to be true to yourself and true to others. I'm not going to go with a brand I don't like who pays me more money if I don't like that brand. I'm going to go with the brand that I like that will pay me less money."
That is either naivete or consumerism's nearest approximation of a conscience.
WHATEVER THE CASE, Smith-Schuster's marketing instincts and very online lifestyle culminated in the most sui generis brand-enhancing social media moment of 2018 when, in March, he played Fortnite on Twitch along with the world's most popular gamer, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, and the rappers Drake and Travis Scott.
"To me, that's when gaming became mainstream. Drake made it cool," says Thomas Oliveira, aka "FaZe Temperrr." The 25-year-old Oliveira is one of the founders of FaZe Clan, an esports team and gaming collective with whom Smith-Schuster lived during the offseason.
Oliveira and I are sitting opposite each other in the fourth-floor living room of the FaZe Clan's mansion, high in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by various minimalist pieces of white furniture arranged (or not) in such a way as to deny the space a center.
The place is a gas, and a bit of a gag -- idle wealth having a laugh at itself. There are massive floor-to-ceiling windows and a staircase that ascends at right angles. There's a gym with free weights and machines on the third floor. There's an elevator. The first floor has a small movie theater/dance room complete with a disco ball and stripper pole. There's a pool out back on the fourth floor buttressed against a large wall covered with various shades of blue tile, save for the white tiles that spell out HOLLYWOOD. A mosaic. A punchline.
Hanging on a wall on the top floor is a small but prominent sign that reads, in part: "Please be aware that by entering this area and by your presence here you consent to be photographed, filmed and/or otherwise recorded. Your entry and/or continued presence here constitutes your consent ... to any use and/or exploitation in any and all media throughout the universe (for eternity and without any compensation) of your appearance, voice, name and/or likeness, for any purpose whatsoever."
The FaZe Clan started in their first team house on Long Island eight years ago with about 4,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel. They now claim tens of millions of followers over their various social media platforms, and they don't just live in this mansion; a separate contingent of the team also lives in a larger one just down the street.
Oliveira says he thinks of his brand like Europe's most storied football clubs: "FC Barcelona's been around for over 100 years. We could definitely be around for over 100 years."
Smith-Schuster spent his offseason at a different mansion, just off Sunset Boulevard, and describes life in the FaZe house like so: "You literally live in a mansion. You wake up in the morning. You game, you stream all day. You go out and you make YouTube videos. You hang out and then you order Postmates because you don't have to leave your house. You get food, you eat Roscoe's [fried chicken]. ... So you do that every day and then you go to bed and you do it again and then you do that for like a year and then you move into another mansion and you just keep moving into another mansion."
This is not an exaggeration. People really live like this. Others aspire to it. JuJu says he plans to live with FaZe Clan next offseason as well.
Oliveira was in the next room watching "Breaking Bad" when his phone chirped that Ninja was going to play Fortnite with Drake. He turned on Ninja's Twitch stream in time to see Travis Scott hop in. Then Ninja mentioned Smith-Schuster.
"I'm watching like, 'Yo, this is crazy,'" Oliveira says. "And then I realized Juju's on the same floor as me, just next door. And he was struggling with setting up his stream and stuff. So I'm like, 'Yo, I need to go help him.' I just went over there."
The session shattered the record for concurrent views on the streaming service Twitch and trended on Twitter. The summer with FaZe was eye-opening for Smith-Schuster. He wants to be the first stick-and-ball pro athlete to also be part of an esports clan.
He wants more than that. He wants to be a streamer -- a lifestyle that typically requires spending sometimes as much six hours a day broadcasting oneself playing video games. By 30 he'd like to be "a strong streamer, big YouTuber, just playing video games, man."
If this seems incompatible with being a professional football player, his offseason with FaZe offered a glimpse into how he might pull it off. His housemates say Smith-Schuster would get up early to go train, come back to eat and hang out, then leave again for his second workout. He'd return in the afternoon and have the rest of the day to game and make YouTube content.
The housemates glow about Smith-Schuster's ability to party without booze or drugs. They envy his early mornings and work ethic. They shake their heads in admiration when they remember the times Smith-Schuster jumped out of the car at a red light and hit the "shoot dance."
He already has begun to lay the foundations of a life lived online with JuJu TV, his YouTube channel. You can watch as: JuJu pranks students and teachers at USC by showing up to audit classes in full pads, JuJu pretends to run up on Lil Yachty, JuJu turns up at (or takes the piss out of) a Kenny Chesney concert, JuJu futzes around with his French bulldog Boujee, JuJu goes trick-or-treating as JuJu, JuJu hams it up in an incognito man-on-the-street bit asking pedestrians what they think ... of JuJu.
"Why does JuJu TV exist?" I ask him at the CoD event.
"Why not JuJu TV?" he shoots back good-naturedly. "That's the real question. Why not?"
IT'S NOT GOING to be easy to live this way, to stay in this golden moment before he's forced to choose, to constrain himself. Smith-Schuster hears it all the time, some fans even leave comments on his mom's social media. "They're always talking about, 'Yeah, you need to focus on football. Stop playing video games. Go to bed early,'" he says, sighing lightly. "I get those, man, but YOLO. ... Good JuJu, bad JuJu, man. It's just how I work."
He goes on, "I'm real, I'm not going to tell you, 'Hey, I go to bed at 10 and I wake up in the morning and I have bananas and a parfait yogurt.' Nah, I'm not like that."
A few weeks later when we meet up in L.A. during his bye week, sitting together in a green room before he goes on a TV show, he's in a more reflective mood.
We talk about who the top three receivers in the NFL are. He says Antonio Brown, A.J. Green and Julio Jones. I ask him where he thinks he ranks. "Around 10th," he says. We talk about what it takes to reach the level of those three.
"Sacrificing other things that I like doing and putting in more time, honestly," he says. "Probably sacrificing video games, watching more film."
I ask if he's started to make those kinds of changes or if he's merely planning to. He pockets his phone suddenly and says, "If you want to start eating healthy, for example, you just do it. You start now. You don't wait until a certain date."
So you've started or you're thinking about it?
"Thinking about it," he says.
I ask him if it even matters, if he cares about reaching the ranks of those top three guys.
He's nodding before I even finish the question, "I want to be talked about in that group."
Yes, of course he wants that, too. He wants all the things.