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The Young Hope

USC hasn’t produced a transcendent NFL receiver in decades. Could JuJu Smith-Schuster, the youngest player in this year’s draft, be the one to break the curse? Just let him answer that.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s a cool April afternoon in Los Angeles. The palm trees that surround Howard Jones practice field at the University of Southern California are swaying with the breeze, which picks up as the bright sun begins its descent. On a field that was only minutes ago filled with the sounds of players tackling one other and coaches barking out instructions, the atmosphere following one of USC’s spring practices is now placid. In the far corner of the complex, a Jugs machine ticks rhythmically. Near the red steel door that marks the entrance, reporters crowd around quarterback Sam Darnold, while other players stand in front of cameras, sweat still dripping from their foreheads.

The hushed tones are suddenly interrupted by two high-pitched squeals. The elementary-school-aged children of a USC assistant coach have made a visit to the field on this perfect Southern California day, and as they run on the grass, they chase a third kid whose smile is as wide as theirs.

Twenty-year-old and soon-to-be-NFL wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, clad in an all-black shirt-and-jeans ensemble with a black hat, jukes away from the two children, spinning out of their reach as he runs down the field. Bouncing around his neck, a gold chain with the letters “IGWT” (“In God We Trust”) shimmers in the sunlight. Three months ago, Smith-Schuster decided to forego his senior season at USC and declared for the NFL draft. But ever since he theoretically said goodbye to the program, the wide receiver has constantly hung around the school, attending lacrosse games, working out at the Trojans’ facilities with current players, showing up to the team’s spring game and a handful of practices.

“I just love it here,” he says a week later, sitting on a high-top chair in the middle of Wallis Annenberg Hall, a new communications building on campus. Two iPhones and a large bag of sour candy sit in front of him. He’s wearing a fitted Juventus soccer jersey, which clings tightly to his broad shoulders. “Obviously, I made the decision to leave already, but I wouldn’t mind coming back here for my senior year. I want to be a part of USC forever.”

In less than a week, Smith-Schuster will become part of a new organization. Yet Smith-Schuster, who is projected as a second-round pick but could sneak into the first round, knows there’s an expectation that comes with being a USC wide receiver. Though the Trojans have seen a glut of receiver talent in the past 15 years, few have found success in the NFL. And the three players Smith-Schuster looked up to as he grew up a USC fan — Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor — have yet to record a 1,000-yard season in the pros. It’s hard to believe that Keyshawn Johnson, drafted in 1996, before Smith-Schuster was even born, is the program’s last receiver to make a Pro Bowl. For better or for worse, Smith-Schuster has to follow that lineage. But it doesn’t bother him.

“I get a lot of media heat about USC wide receivers not producing in the NFL,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Look, everyone’s different. I’m my own person. And I’m here to prove everybody wrong.’”

In 2014, two days before making one of the biggest decisions of his life, Smith-Schuster lied to his mother. Following a dinner party at the family’s home in Long Beach, Sammy Schuster asked her son if he was going to commit to play college football at Oregon or USC. She didn’t want to be surprised when he announced his decision to the world. Oregon, Smith-Schuster told her. Sammy’s heart sunk. She didn’t want to see her son go that far away. She cried, but she understood.

Forty-eight hours later, Smith-Schuster sat in front of four hats at Long Beach Poly High School. “I will be furthering my education, for the next four years …” As he uttered his decision on national TV, his right hand gravitated toward the Ducks hat. It stopped, and instead he moved his left hand toward the USC hat, which he grabbed and placed on his head. “… at the University of Southern California.” Sammy burst into tears.

“I was mad,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m on national TV and you see me back there, and I’m crying my butt off. You were supposed to tell me!’ But really, I was happy that he was staying home.”

At USC that same day, then–wide receivers coach Tee Martin watched in glee — and relief. Just a few months before that moment, Martin was recruiting Smith-Schuster when the 17-year-old cut to the chase. “He told me, ‘Coach, if I’m playing defense, then I’m going somewhere else, but I’m coming to USC to play wide receiver.’”

Smith-Schuster was a five-star recruit and the third-highest-rated athlete in the class of 2014, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and he was as highly regarded at safety as he was at wide receiver. He had grown up a USC fan, living less than an hour south of Memorial Coliseum. Playing there had always been his dream. No other recruit, Martin said, would be more decked out in cardinal and gold gear during recruiting visits than Smith-Schuster. “Everyone my age wanted to be Reggie Bush. He was my idol,” Smith-Schuster says. “But coming up in high school and playing wide receiver, I wanted to be fast and quick like Marqise Lee, but I also wanted to be technique-sound and run really smooth routes like Robert Woods.”

Smith-Schuster at the NFL combine in March (Getty Images)
Smith-Schuster at the NFL combine in March (Getty Images)

Martin says the three wideouts who preceded Smith-Schuster at USC were great route runners who excelled at gaining yards after the catch. But he notes that none was the complete package that Smith-Schuster was from the moment he set foot on campus. “JuJu comes in as a freshman at 220 pounds and is a unique receiver in that he encompasses all of those things — size, speed, strength — that a lot of those guys have as just singular qualities.”

Smith-Schuster says he wanted to play with Lee, but Lee left for the NFL after his junior season — the year before Smith-Schuster joined the Trojans. And so Smith-Schuster took Lee’s no. 9 jersey and grabbed 123 receiving yards in a season-opening 52–13 win over Fresno State, the best debut by a USC freshman wideout ever. “I wanted to be the next guy to leave a legacy,” he says. Three years following his first few steps on the USC campus, Smith-Schuster did just that.

In past offseasons, Smith-Schuster has worked out with both Lee and Woods, and he says he keeps in contact with Agholor. Growing up, Smith-Schuster wanted to be them. Now he wants to be better than them — and thinks he can be. “Stylistically, he’s different than those guys. He’s a combo of power and strength,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah says. “Nelson and Robert were quick, really smooth athletes. Marqise had some more similarities, but none were the same size [as Smith-Schuster]. He’s really competitive. … Agholor didn’t have the edge that JuJu has.”

It was late and Smith-Schuster couldn’t sleep. As he tossed and turned in his bed at his student apartment, his eyes were moist with tears. The pain in his right hand was excruciating.

Just three days before, on October 31, 2015, Smith-Schuster had broken a bone below his ring finger in the first quarter of a 27–21 win at Cal. He played briefly in the second half before being forced to sit out the rest of the game. When the X-ray results came in the morning after, the news was grim. His broken hand could sideline him for the remainder of the fall. But Smith-Schuster, who hadn’t missed a game through almost two seasons at USC, had an alternate option. Team doctors told him he could have surgery, which would require inserting a plate and screw to stabilize his hand, and try to be ready for Saturday’s game against Arizona. The choice was easy.

“JuJu didn’t even want to come out of the game [he broke his hand in],” Martin remembers. “And the day the X-rays came in, he called me and said, ‘Coach, I’m not going to miss a game.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ I didn’t believe him.”

Surgery came Monday and with it the sleepless nights, the pain, and the crying. If Smith-Schuster was going to play, his hand didn’t just need to be functional, it needed to be strong. And so he followed protocol, grasping at rice, molding Play-Doh, and squeezing rubber balls to try to regain his force. The pain was irritating, but if he wanted to have a chance at catching a football on Saturday, he had no other alternative.

The physical toll was one thing. The mental struggle was another. During practice that week, Smith-Schuster had little choice but to stand on the sideline and watch. But he couldn’t sit still, instead running fake routes and mimicking his fellow receivers who were out on the field. Even trying to evade imaginary corners and perfect meaningless slants was better than doing nothing.

Smith-Schuster plays with a cast on his hand against Arizona (Getty Images)
Smith-Schuster plays with a cast on his hand against Arizona (Getty Images)

That Saturday, USC hosted Arizona. His mother had urged him to sit out, but Smith-Schuster was fitted in a custom cast and played through the pain. “It was probably the toughest time I had here at USC,” he says. He made eight catches for 138 yards with a touchdown in a 38–30 victory.

After the game, coaches and players wondered how Smith-Schuster had played in a cast, let alone how he hauled in a 72-yard touchdown that was the eventual difference in the comeback win. Head coach Clay Helton had called the possibility of him playing “absurd,” and following the performance, he dubbed him “Superman.”

“JuJu only has one speed. If you want him off the field, you’re going to have to take away his helmet,” Martin says. “Otherwise, he’s going out there on the field. Whether it’s special teams, offense, whatever it is, he’s going to do whatever it takes to help his team and ultimately go out there and compete.”

In his three seasons at USC, Smith-Schuster played in 39 games and started 38 of them. It wasn’t that he avoided injuries — he simply overcame them. Not just the broken hand, but also a thumb injury and back spasms, along with countless bumps and bruises. Regardless of the setback, Smith-Schuster’s approach to the game has never changed. “He seeks out contact and he’s highly emotional and he’s got a temper to him, which can be a good thing,” Jeremiah says. “He’s also got a violent stiff arm.”

Ask Smith-Schuster about his stiff arm and he’ll laugh. His signature highlight came in the 2015 season against Utah, when he caught a ball on an underneath route, turned upfield, and sought out Utes defensive back Dominique Hatfield. Hatfield had been talking trash all game, asking Smith-Schuster why he was “trying to put him on SportsCenter.” Smith-Schuster did, sending the home crowd into pandemonium and his move into viral perpetuity.

“It’s just me, him, the sideline. So, I point at him like, ‘Yo, come on, come here now, let’s get it,’” he recalls. “My right hand crossed his helmet, picked him up, and just threw him out of bounds, and it’s just crazy. I’ve seen it all over. It’s everything.”

When Lawrence Schuster would make the drive down from Garden Grove, California, to Long Beach over 16 years ago, he always made sure to have two things in his car: candy and gum. It’s how Schuster, then a single man courting Sammy, would appeal to her 4-year-old son, JuJu — who at that time went by his birth name, John. As Lawrence would park in front of their home, JuJu would run to the car and look inside, not for Lawrence, but for the gum. He was obsessed. Lawrence noticed the excitement and never failed to bring a pack.

That, too, is how Smith-Schuster first remembers Lawrence, now his stepfather. “Gum and candy, I liked that,” Smith-Schuster recalls. “I was like, yeah, keep coming around.” Lawrence kept coming back, and eventually married Sammy in 2000. The affection grew between Smith-Schuster and Lawrence, who first introduced Smith-Schuster to football by signing him up for a nearby park league in Carson. His team was the Rams.

The sport became the common interest that bonded the two, as Lawrence took on some responsibilities that were vacated by Smith-Schuster’s biological father, who left the family early in Smith-Schuster’s life. Sammy says Smith-Schuster’s father was never really around early on, and Smith-Schuster says he remembers his dad walking out of his life when he was 5. Since then, the two have talked on and off, but their relationship isn’t strong. “I forgive him for what he did,” Smith-Schuster says. “I don’t hold grudges or anything.”

When Smith-Schuster arrived at USC, his name on the depth chart read, “John Smith.” He changed it so that his first name would be his lifelong nickname of “JuJu.” Heading into his sophomore season, he tacked on Schuster to his last name, in honor of Lawrence. “He just took me over like I was his own son,” Smith-Schuster says. “He didn’t complain, he didn’t treat me wrong or do anything. He taught me to be who I am today. That’s why I am a great man, because of who he is and what he did.”

Smith-Schuster stiff-arms a Stanford defender (Getty Images)
Smith-Schuster stiff-arms a Stanford defender (Getty Images)

Smith-Schuster’s ability to have both a young soul and a forward-thinking outlook is rare. He was the youngest player at this March’s NFL combine in Indianapolis, and could be one of the youngest ever to be selected in the draft. “JuJu is a kid at heart, and that’s the way he’s always been. He comes home and he blends right in with the little kids, plays with them and watches movies as if he was one of them,” Sammy says. “But I think when JuJu needs to be mature or when he needs to be an adult, he switches over to that.”

Martin says that Smith-Schuster reminds him of Hines Ward, with whom he played during his rookie season in 2001 in Pittsburgh. Ward, Martin says, was one of the toughest guys out there, but he never did anything without a smile. Smith-Schuster is the same. This is a guy who has owned and proudly worn a tiny Minions backpack and an Elmo backpack, traveled around campus on a one-wheel hoverboard, and made it a ritual to visit the local Taco Bell and buy boxes of their Cinnabon Delights. The football field is just one of his favorite playgrounds. Sometimes, it’s even his dance floor.

“Andy Reid used to say, ‘Everyone who you draft either sucks energy from your team or brings energy to your team,’” Jeremiah says. “I think JuJu is a guy who brings the energy.” That jolt of adrenaline that may lead Smith-Schuster to taking out a defensive back is the same one that fuels his desire to be happy off the field as well.

“I’m not one of those guys who’s like, ‘Yo, I’m working 24/7, 10 hours a day, I’m the best one out there,’” he says. “I think you have to balance life and football. You can’t be all football and not happy with your life.”

When Sammy and Smith-Schuster traveled to New York City after he signed with Roc Nation in January, even she was taken aback by her son in the meeting with the agency. Smith-Schuster took copious notes before listing what he wanted with a straightforwardness and conviction that left Sammy both proud and surprised.

“He said he wanted to set up an organization so that his younger sisters could help the homeless, because he knew that’s what they want to do. He said he wanted to open up his own nursing home because his grandmother is in home care right now,” Sammy says. “He also said he wanted to start his own clothing line, all managed by his family. He wants to make money, but keep everything in and for the family.”

As Smith-Schuster hopes for a long, stable, and profitable NFL career, he’s focused on helping those close to him as much as he is bucking the recent trend of USC receivers struggling in the pros. And he’s thinking about his savings — he says the first car he wants to buy is a Prius — as much as he is team fit. “Tennessee doesn’t have [income] tax, Florida doesn’t have [income] tax,” he says. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind staying in L.A., but the tax here is crazy.”

Sammy, meanwhile, says they’re both ready for him to leave Los Angeles if that happens to be the case. But as with his college decision, she can’t deny that she hopes he’ll land in an NFL destination close to home. “At least now,” she laughs, “we have two teams in L.A. who can possibly pick him.”