A typical 21 year old is worrying about keeping student debt down, or maybe where to go out with friends on an upcoming weekend. Long Beach Poly alum JuJu Smith-Schuster, on the other hand, is constructing an empire on and off the football field.
Smith-Schuster was an All-American at Poly, beloved for his friendly and open stance off the field as much as for his heroics on it, where he led the Jackrabbits to the 2012 CIF championship. He was a star at USC for three years before being drafted late in the second round of the NFL Draft in 2017 by the Steelers, at the age of 20.
Now midway through his second season, Smith-Schuster has made NFL history as the receiver with the most yards ever gained as a 20-year-old and the most ever gained by a 21-year-old. His exploits off the field have been just as impressive, as he’s channeled a fun-loving personality into a profitable social media and endorsement presence, earning writeups from Forbes as well as ESPN.
“Smith-Schuster is a rare breed because he’s so highly engaging,” writes Forbes’ Darren Heitner.
While he was at Poly, Smith-Schuster would play little jokes, like teasing recruiting writers by wearing workout gear from different colleges to school and practice every day. He faked out his mom, Sammy, by telling her he was going to sign with Oregon before announcing on ESPN that he was going to USC.
“He’s just naturally a funny and open, relatable person,” said Sammy. “He’s down to earth but he’s also always just been a really funny kid.”
In 2018, that personality is a commodity, just as much as Smith-Schuster’s ability to run routes and catch passes. Consider these numbers: Smith-Schuster was the 62nd pick in the 2017 Draft, but he has more fans on Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube than any of the players taken ahead of him. That might not seem significant, but consider that all three of those can be easily monetized, and while the average NFL career lasts three years, a big personality lasts a lifetime.
Smith-Schuster has 750,000 followers on Twitter, more than 200,000 higher than any other pick in his draft and more than double the combined total of the three quarterbacks taken ahead of him. He has 1.8 million followers on Instagram and 600,000 subscribers on his Youtube account, which has already racked up 25 million views. Funny videos of Smith-Schuster searching for his stolen bike or playing with his French bulldog Boujee routinely go viral and rack up millions of views across different social media sites.
His popularity in Pittsburgh and on the internet have led to his jersey being the No. 8-selling jersey in the NFL, according to Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Smith-Schuster signed with Roc Nation as his agency, but Sammy has served as his manager, or “momager” as he joked during the offseason. She deserves a good amount of credit for a rapidly growing endorsement slate that includes Pizza Hut, Postmates, Call of Duty, adidas, New Era, Monster, Kobe Bryant’s Art of Sports, and HyperX.
As an example of how lucrative these endorsements can be, HyperX is probably the least well-known of those brand names. The company makes video gaming accessories like wireless headsets, and they signed Smith-Schuster to a six-figure deal as their first ever professional athlete endorser.
A keen eye could pick up on a theme of the companies listed above: they’re all appealing to fans that are Smith-Schuster’s age. Like most college-aged kids, Smith-Schuster loves pizza and he loves video games. Unlike most college-aged kids, he’s been able to use his popularity to secure partnerships with his favorite companies.
“Everything is authentically him,” said Sammy. “That’s what he said he wanted to do, and that’s what he’s done.”
That means Smith-Schuster is not only augmenting his NFL salary in a big (and sustainable) way, he’s also getting paid to do things that he loves. He was one of the first people to play a new Call of Duty game, and he’s played Fortnite on live streams with everyone from Ninja to Drake.
The Pizza Hut deal means that when one of his siblings in Long Beach has a birthday party, Sammy doesn’t have to worry about food. At Poly’s girls’ volleyball team’s Senior Night earlier this season, there were 50 pizzas at the gym for the players and their families (Smith-Schuster’s cousin, Liz, is the team’s setter). There ended up being so much pizza, Sammy was begging fans to take boxes home with them on their way out.
It’s not just making sure the Long Beach community is fed, either. Smith-Schuster drew a lot of respect from the local sports community by hosting a packed, sold-out free football camp for kids last Summer, despite it being after his rookie season. There were tons of kids there, some of whom obviously weren’t big football fans.
“A lot of these kids just know JuJu from video games, from Fortnite,” said Sammy with a laugh. “I don’t think some of them know anything about football.”
Free pizza, Posmates, and video games would sound like a dream to just about anyone out there who’s Smith-Schuster’s age. Getting paid for all those things? Only a talent and a personality as big as Smith-Schuster’s—coupled with a wise strategy devised by he and his mom—could have pulled that off.