Don't let JuJu Smith-Schuster's mile-wide smile fool you: the former Pro Bowl receiver is not happy about missing the majority of the 2021 season after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in October. But despite the injury along with the disappointment of not playing, the Steelers' 2018 team MVP has found different ways to contribute to Pittsburgh's success. He has also attacked his recovery and is looking forward to getting back on the field in 2022.
A 2017 second-round pick out of USC, Smith-Schuster quickly burst on to the scene during his rookie season in Pittsburgh. After scoring eight touchdowns during his rookie season, Smith-Schuster set career highs with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards during his second season. Last season, Smith-Schuster caught a career-high nine touchdowns while helping the Steelers return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Smith-Schuster signed a one-year contract to remain in Pittsburgh this past offseason despite receiving interest from several other teams. And while his 2021 was limited to just five games, Smith-Schuster has remained a constant presence within the Steelers' facility.
Smith-Schuster recently spoke with CBS Sports about his ongoing recovery, his relationship with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger's future, the Steelers' playoff chances and his most memorable on-field moment during his first five seasons in Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster also spoke about his partnership with Team Milk and the importance milk plays in his life.
How has your recovery been going?
"I'm feeling great. I think the hardest part for me is the mental part, not being able to be out there and play. I've had injuries where I've torn my thumb, broke my hand and maybe missed one game, if that. But missing a whole season is not a good feeling. But physically, I'm doing great. I'm back, I'm working out, I'm around the team doing as much as I can."
Speaking of being able to play through injuries, when you were at USC, you played five days after breaking your hand?
"I broke my hand on Halloween night against Cal. I had surgery that Monday, came back the next Saturday and played against Arizona.
"Anytime I have the option to do this or do that, I've always been the type of person to say, 'I can do it.' I had surgery Monday, I started doing rehab that same night after surgery going into Tuesday. Didn't practice at all throughout the week and came out and played that week. ... I think it's just like a mental thing with any injury. As I said, the mental part can be the hardest part. When I found out I was done for the whole year, I was like, 'Wow, I can't play through this?' They said, 'If you do play through this, there's a possibility you can't play football again.' So I was like, 'OK, that makes sense.'"
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How have you tried to contribute to the team while working on your recovery?
"I'm in the meeting rooms with my receivers. A lot of times, it's more so of saying, 'This is what I see, this is what I like,' and I just feed that information to them because we all see different things. Also just being a positive spirit and an energy guy. I think when I'm around, there's happiness, excitement, and that's what I love to bring to my team. On the sideline, I'm doing it all game, cheering them on. And that's all I can do for right now."
What have you learned and/or observed during this process that you may not have noticed previously?
"I would say I really do admire and appreciate coaches from being in their point of view. These guys actually put the time and work. It's not a 9-5 job. As Coach Tomlin would say, 'You're not paid by the hour.' You're always working, no matter what. Being in the coaches shoes, it's a lot, and I respect what they do.
"I do say that I enjoy it because I'm learning so much more that I didn't know when it comes to coaching football."
Speaking of coaches, what is your relationship like with Mike Tomlin? Do you have any favorite stories involving him?
"I love that man. He was a lot of the reason why I stayed in Pittsburgh for one more year. Playing for a guy like that is someone you want to play for. He's one of those coaches that if you mess up, you don't want him to be disappointed or upset with you because you value him so much. It's kind of like you don't want to bring home bad grades because you don't want to make your parents disappointed because you care about that person so much."
"One of my favorite press conference was when USC was trying to recruit him to be the head coach. I ran with it so hard. (laughs) I'm wearing USC gear, I'm bringing him a hat. I'm like, 'Hey, come to L.A., it's warmer.' He's getting a kick out of it."
I'm sure you've heard the reports that this will likely be Ben Roethlisberger's last season in Pittsburgh. What are you hoping to see from him down the stretch if this is indeed his final season?
"I hope to see a lot. For me, it sucks that if this is his last season, I wasn't about to finish out with him. I want to see him make it to the playoffs one more time. But AFC North football is really tough right now. We're on a tight rope between Cincinnati, the Browns and Baltimore. I would love to see him get to the playoffs and rip it again."
The Steelers are right in the thick of things in the AFC playoff race. What is your take on the current state of the Steelers?
"We're still young and we're still hungry. There's so much food on the plate out there that we just need to go out there and just get. We really haven't established a nice run game. We really haven't established a nice passing game. I feel like we've been doing just enough to get by, but a win is a win for us. Going into these next five games are going to be crucial because it's a lot of AFC football. We have Minnesota this week, which is NFC, but we have Tennessee, we have K.C., we also have Baltimore left, we have the Browns left. We have some football left. I'm excited to see where we go.
"You've got to keep stacking those 'Ws'. The [Mark] Andrews drop [in the Steelers' Week 13 win over Baltimore], that was insane. It was just one play away. We've just got to keep stacking wins, pull away and get the 'Ws.'"
What has been the main on-field highlight for you during your first five seasons in the NFL?
"I would say being part of the Steelers and being part of this whole process. But honestly, I would have to say the [Vontaze] Burfict hit was a life-changing moment not just for myself but for Steeler Nation. That was the same game Ryan Shazier [suffered his career-ending injury]. It was just such a physical game. It has to go down as one of my favorites."
Your foundation has had a very active holiday season. The foundation gave away roughly 500 Thanksgiving meals, and the foundation recently collected over 300 toys that will delivered to a homeless shelter for Christmas. Why is it so important for you to give back to the Pittsburgh community?
"Now that I'm not playing, I have so much more time on my hands. ... I think it's very important just to give back. Obviously I'm not from Pittsburgh, but being here, the fans and the city supports me, I've got to give back. That's what it's all about. Everything that was given to me, it was given to them from someone else. I'm just doing the same thing and paving the way for the younger guys, the next generation."
Speaking of the fans, why do you think Pittsburgh fans have embraced you they way that they have from seemingly the day that you were drafted?
"It's just my personality and just being myself. Embracing the city, being able to go to Penguins and Pirates games. I've had so many fans come up to me and tell me, 'Hey JuJu, regardless of if you're here next year or you go somewhere else, we'll always support you. We may not wear that colored jersey, but we're always be JuJu fans.' Stuff like that goes a long way because it means so much. Hopefully, the fans have an impact on where I play next year."
What motivated you to join Team Milk and their initiative?
"I've been drinking milk my whole life. Growing up as a kid, I was always a big milk drinker. … Team Milk has helped me with my diet and my performance over the first four years of being healthy and then obviously my recovery that I'm going through now."
What would your advice be for young athletes who need to take their nutrition more seriously?
"For me, I would say, 'Listen to your mom. If she tells you to drink milk, drink milk.' (laughs). That was my motto growing up. Doing that, I've always been the type to always drink milk. Some of these young guys, I tell them that longevity, performance and to be able to be strong and fit and healthy, drink milk. It's all natural, and it's easily accessible. … A lot of my teammates, they love chocolate milk after practice."
What is your favorite milk to drink?
"I'm big on chocolate milk. As a kid, if it wasn't juice, it was mainly chocolate milk. We always had milk in the house. We'd run through 3-4 gallons a week between me and my siblings. It was insane."