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'Team JuJu' starts with mom

Posted Dec 3, 2017

JuJu Smith-Schuster knows his mom will always be there for him.

Sammy Schuster laughed when she thought back to the day she made her son, Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a promise.

He was just eight years old, and playing football for the first time. He already had big dreams of playing in the NFL, but he didn’t want to do it alone. He wanted his mom to be there with him, just like any young kid would wish for.

JuJu asked his mom to promise him that when he made it to the NFL she would move with him to whatever city he played in. And of course, she agreed.

“It is a promise I made to him then. But I don’t know,” said Sammy. “I have been going out there and loving it. I told him it would be nice if we raised the younger kids there. JuJu wants to retire as a Steeler. But we can’t control these things. I am going to sit back and wait it out for now.

“He did say it, are you moving Pittsburgh. I told him not now, we are fine over here.”

The promise was made long before the family had grown from JuJu, now 20, and his older sister, So’omalo, 22. Smith-Schuster now has five younger siblings, Lawson, 12. Oilau, 10, Salaia, 9, Pua. 7 and Teuila, 5. That makes moving from their home in Southern California to Pittsburgh a much greater challenge, one that despite the love mom has for her son, he knows isn’t a reality.

“Being a kid, me saying that I didn’t know she was going to have more kids,” said JuJu. “That changes things. But she loves it here. Hopefully she will get the chance to move here one day. But I think she will stay where she is with all of the kids.”

* * *

While she might not be able to make the move to Pittsburgh, Sammy is always there for JuJu, always supporting him, just like she has done from the time he started to play football. Whether it was youth football, high school, or college, being at his games was a priority.

“I missed one game in college. That was the Boston College game,” said Sammy of going to all of JuJu’s games while he was at USC. “We had a huge tailgate at home, invited everybody over. He got injured in the game and my heart dropped. I don’t like to not be there. My nephew was there and I got on the phone to see if he was okay. He told me he was jogging and dancing on the sideline. They weren’t telling us that on television. I was so happy and told everyone.”

With JuJu now in the NFL, playing home games some 3,000 miles away from his family, it’s not so easy to get to every game anymore. There are five younger kids whose lives they have to balance, and it’s not easy for Sammy to be there, as well as not be there, for every game. But when she heard from JuJu that he wanted her, and his father Lawrence Shuster, who met Sammy when JuJu was four and they married two years later, at the Vikings game, she had to go.

“It is hard,” she said. “I have to pick and choose what games to go to. His dad and I weren’t going to go to the home opener because we went to the first game of the season, the away game. We told him we won’t be there, but we were going to have his sister come to it. So we were going to have some family fly out.

“Then he texted me that Wednesday and said mom I really want you to be there. I feel like I am going to score my first touchdown, I want you and dad to be there for my first touchdown. He asked us to please find a babysitter. That is hard. We have an awesome family and they said if he wants you there, you need to be there. I was at every first touchdown he scored in his football career at each level. I had to be there.”

JuJu knew what he was talking about. With mom and dad in the stands, he scored his first NFL touchdown on a four-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger in a win over Minnesota.

“The day I knew I was getting more playing time, I knew I was going to score,” said JuJu. “I wanted to make it special. My mom came and it just made life easier. It’s hard they can’t always be there for games. It’s the way it is. But she has other kids she has to take care of the way she took care of me when I was a little kid.

“But for my mom and dad to come, see me score my first touchdown, they were there for all my firsts, first high school game, first college game, first NFL touchdown. That was special.”

While JuJu celebrated the touchdown on the field with a role of the dice, mom celebrated in the stands like only a mom can.

“When he scored the touchdown I was going nuts in the stands,” said Sammy. “I was screaming like I had the Holy Ghost in me. Somebody tapped my sister-in-law on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. She told her yes, that’s her baby that just scored. Then all of the fans were like you are JuJu’s mom. That is awesome.

“I was so happy to experience his first NFL touchdown. That was a moment, he called it. He didn’t know if it was going to happen, but it happened right in front of me and that was amazing.”

She stopped for a minute, thinking about how much it meant that JuJu wanted her to be there, didn’t want her to miss what was going to be a huge moment for him. 

“I don’t think a mom in my situation can ever put it into the perfect words,” said Sammy. “It’s a moment you want to cherish forever and never let go. You raised this kid, have seen his passion for football. JuJu was never a kid I had to wake up and get him going to play football. He was always the first one there and the last one to leave. For a mom, those type of moments are precious and you want to cherish them forever.”

* * *

Letting go. It’s never easy for a mom, and never something they will fully do. Sure, JuJu can move across the country, but he will never be far from his mom.

“In the beginning, when he left the day of the draft, my heart dropped,” said Sammy. “I didn’t know what to expect. He is going to be so far away, the first time in his life he will be away from us. When he came back he was so excited. Then when he left for rookie camp, and when he came back, he loved it there in Pittsburgh. There was nothing in his voice, nothing in his actions that told me otherwise.

“When I finally went out there to visit Pittsburgh for the first time I knew why he loved it. I love it there. Whenever I come there I tell him how much I love it there. It’s so different from California where it’s so fast paced. I understand why he adjusted well there. I felt like he needed that peace and quiet, that slower environment for him to focus on his career.”

Family is an important aspect for JuJu. All you have to do is follow him on social media to see that. You see pictures of him from the draft, surrounded by ‘Team JuJu,’ which encompasses immediate and extended family. You see pictures of him with his siblings at Universal Studios theme park, where it’s hard to tell who is having more fun, JuJu or his younger siblings.

“It is tough,” said JuJu. “I do miss my family and my siblings. It is the life you live with. During this bye week I am going to take some time and go home.”

When he can’t see them, though, they are just a phone call away.

“We always talk to him before and after the games,” said Sammy. “We had a ritual in our family when he was in high school where we do a family prayer before the game. I try to keep that going. I know there are times now that we have to do it when JuJu is on the team bus headed to the game, so it is tougher. Our prayers used to be about 15 minutes long, now it’s quicker. I make sure he calls me in the morning. We make sure we are all up waiting for his phone call. When he calls I three-way my family and my sister does the family prayer and then we let him go.

“It means a lot. It plays a huge part in where he is now. It’s a true testament to where he is now. Without God he wouldn’t be where he is. The strength, knowledge and courage he has, everybody tells me we did a good job as parents and should be happy. Yes we raised him, but all praise goes to God. There are so many kids in JuJu’s situation who have gone a different route. I believe his faith in God is why he is where he is now.”

* * *

There is another way Sammy keeps an eye on JuJu. Social media. If you follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, you see the fun he has and are entertained by his youthful exuberance with everything he does. And, of course, there was the adventure of the stolen bike.

“He is so funny,” said Sammy. “And people have responded to him in an amazing manner. It’s incredible. He has fun, and people have fun with him.

“He is now sharing his cooking adventures on there. I am happy he is cooking. He never cooked at home. He would only make a sandwich or cereal. I am happy he is learning how to cook. When I do come out there I go buy stuff to cook for him. He never had food in his refrigerator. He only has breakfast food. He is a breakfast guy. But I am glad to see he is doing more.”

She isn’t the only one using social media to keep an eye on family. JuJu does the same thing.

“I think it’s funny that moms are catching up to us on social media,” said JuJu. “I think it’s cool. I don’t talk to her as much as I want to, but social media keeps us connected. We see what each other are doing when we aren’t talking.”

Mom is enjoying all of his social media exploits and adventures just as much as you do. Well, most of the time that is.

“He was never into social media,” said Sammy. “He wondered what the point was. He would ask why people use social media. When he got into USC it was like you have to get a social media account, get yourself out there and interact with your fans.

“I followed him on everything. I always make sure he does the right thing. There were a few things he put up that I called him and told him take it down right now. And he did. He did some kind of dance, and I made him take it down. He has an image he has to portray. It’s his sense of humor, he has always been a clown, but I still didn’t want him doing that.”

JuJu knows there isn’t anything he can hide from his mom, nor has he ever tried. He has always been open and honest with her, sharing more than most kids do with their parents.

“We have a close relationship,” said Sammy. “I want to say I am like that with all of my kids, it’s just a different relationship with each of them. We are very close. He is very open and honest with me, which sometimes I like and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes he gives me too much information. That is the innocence in him. That is something I cherish now because I know once he gets a little bit older, I don’t know if it’s ever going to go away. I don’t want it to go away.

“That has been our relationship. He has been very open and honest. Even if he is going to do something bad, I know it before he does it. He tells me before he does it. He has been that way his entire life.

“In high school every school has a senior ditch day. My daughter did her senior ditch day and didn’t tell me. When JuJu was a senior I was dropping him off for school and he told me it’s senior ditch day and I am going to ditch school. I couldn’t help but say okay. He told me they were going to the beach and going to be fine. To this day we still joke about it. Who tells their mom they are going to ditch school?”

The answer, a son who trusts his mom, values her, and cherishes the relationship and the bond they have.

“She is the person I can always go to, talk to about personal stuff on and off the field,” said JuJu. “She has always been the heart of our family. I try not to use her too much now because she has the other kids back home who are a lot younger and need that attention.

“Me being how young I am, and she has been through it all, I can always open up to her and talk to her about anything. That is how it is with my mom. I tell her everything. If it has to do with a female, with football, anything personal I can tell her.

“I remember when I was a kid and I would be so excited to go to practice. I would be ready an hour before practice, finish my homework. She would always take me. She was my number one supporter. She came to all my little league games, high school games, college games, and now she is making trips to come out here.

“She means everything to me. She means the world to me. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without my father too. She is the rock of our family. She keeps us strong, keeps us together.”