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Druin: It’s Time for Pittsburgh to Rally Around JuJu Smith-Schuster

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I’ll be honest, I wasn’t always a big fan of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The Pittsburgh Steelers receiver portrayed immaturity in all the wrong ways when he first came in the league. Perhaps that was expected for a young man who wasn’t legally able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage when he was drafted. From the YouTube videos of him walking to class fully dressed in football equipment to his Fortnite savy, you wouldn’t expect “professional football player” to be JuJu’s occupation upon first glimpse.

It wasn’t just myself that initially was skeptical of Smith-Schuster. Some of those in Pittsburgh’s beloved sports media (you know who) have taken to social media to continually slander the 22-year-old receiver.

The hate/envy even made its way into the locker room. During Smith-Schuster’s impressive rookie campaign, teammate/fellow receiver Martavis Bryant grew tired of playing second fiddle to the up and coming USC product, taking to the comment section of Instagram to voice his displeasure.

During the 2018 NFL Draft Bryant was sent packing to Oakland for a third round pick, thus opening the spot for Smith-Schuster to officially claim his spot as the secondary receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. A Brown/Smith-Schuster duo was to be considered one of the best in the league, and was expected to lead the Steelers into deep playoff runs for the next few seasons.

Fast forward to the end of the 2018 season, where Smith-Schuster led the team in receptions and receiving yards, upending the perennial All-Pro Brown in both categories.

Brown had long been a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. The sixth round draft pick out of Central Michigan University worked his way to being the top receiver in the game. After watching Mike Wallace wave goodbye to Pittsburgh and chase the money elsewhere, Brown was the man who had the entire city walking around like business was boomin’.

Yet even the sun sets in paradise, as Brown has now evolved into a man who no longer wishes to be in the city that once claimed him as their own. Through a series of odd acts such as declaring himself “Mr. Big Chest” and erratic behavior on social media, Brown has turned himself into villain seemingly overnight.

There are no sole attributes to the shift in attitude in Brown, but falling behind a second year receiver in two major categories likely didn’t sit well with Brown while also watching Smith-Schuster win the team’s MVP award in late December. Did Jealousy drive Brown to his breaking point? The truth may never be revealed, yet Smith-Schuster’s success hasn’t appeared to sit well with Brown.

And here we sit, as a proud sports town, in what feels like the darkest of days to be a card-carrying member of the proud towel wavers. Pittsburgh remains on the forefront of headlines for all the wrong reasons, as the Steelers will continue to feel the PR ripple effects of paying Brown to only trade him a few years later.

After the eventual dealing of Brown, Pittsburgh will officially put a close to the “Killer B’s” chapter, ultimately walking away empty-handed despite possessing one of the most talented offensive rosters in football.

A receiver that continually couldn’t stay clean off the field, a running back that chased the money and a mega-star talent forcing his way out-of-town. Dreams of Bryant, Bell and Brown hoisting a Lombardi trophy have now transformed into empty avenues that will never be explored.

Yet gloomy times allow stars to shine.

Last week, it was announced that Smith-Schuster established the JuJu Foundation, a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to the support of youth initiatives and lifting the spirits of those in need” per the official website.

“This is a dream come true to establish our foundation,” said Smith-Schuster. “This will be a meaningful platform to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Change will be coming to the Steelers locker room, likely sooner rather than later. After QB Ben Roethlisberger retires, Smith-Schuster will need to grow into a leader for the next generation wearing black and gold.

JuJu has connected on a level with fans that only a handful of other athletes in professional sports can attest to. Smith-Schuster, despite being thrown into tough situations involving media and teammates, has done nothing in his first two seasons to prove he will fall down a slippery slope similar to the big names that came before him. JuJu has balanced a life of hard work/production on the field, while remaining personable and jubilant off the field.

It’s time, Pittsburgh.

Smith-Schuster has withstood the fire thrown his way and remains standing. Fans have laughed with the young star in the making while he lost his bike, and cried with him after a crucial fumble late in New Orleans. JuJu embraces everything about being part of the Steelers organization, and it’s officially time to put him on the same pedestal that we built for Bell and Brown.

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