By Mike Guardabascio, Press-Telegram
POSTED: 11/01/13, 12:48 PM PDT
It was the morning of Aug. 24, 2012 and nobody knew who John “JuJu” Smith was.
Well, that’s not exactly true. His head football coach at Long Beach Poly, Raul Lara, had been telling people about a “pretty good” receiver his team had in the weeks leading up to that night’s season opener against Carson. But Smith had no offers, no ink and no highlights as a Jackrabbit.
Against the Colts on that first night of his breakout junior season, Smith caught a 6-yard touchdown pass on fourth and goal to put Poly in the lead. Then he leaped over a defensive back to make a catch on the sideline and went 98 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
In anticipation of a blowout, many Poly fans stayed home. But a group of 100 or so could be heard cheering Smith’s touchdowns until long after the game had ended.
“Yes, they’re like a student section,” Smith said with a smile. “But they’re not.”
No, they’re not. Team JuJu is the name given to Smith’s family and personal cheering section. They’re the ones who’ve known who he was since long before recruiting sites and college coaches found out and who have been going to his games since he was a 5-year-old playing flag football.
“In my 23 years coaching at Poly I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lara said. “They’re a really tight-knit family. They stick together.”
Other fans might notice the effect the group has on games — they’ve become popular among other Poly fans, with their signs and coordinated t-shirts — but the family bond has had a deeper role in shaping Smith as a person. Smith, the second-oldest of seven children, has spent much of his life looking after his little brothers and sisters. It’s a role he’s as comfortable in as any on the football field.
“It’s great,” Smith said. “In life everyone goes their separate way, but I have a bond with all these people I’ll always be able to talk to. It’s like having my own football team.”
Smith has developed a reputation as a do-anything player with the Jackrabbits. He’s already taken snaps at running back, receiver, safety and kick returner this year and even passed for a touchdown. His versatility and combination of strength and agility have drawn offers from every major college program in the country. But his mother, Sammy Schuster, said his greatest abilities aren’t evident on the football field.
“He’s getting so much attention it’s crazy,” she said. “When he went to see his cousin play for La Mirada last week people wanted to take pictures with him. But when he walks in our front door, he’s a regular kid. He does laundry, he washes the dishes and he plays with his brothers and sisters.”
He has done a lot of laundry and a lot of dishes. With so many little ones running around, Smith learned adult lessons at a young age.
“It’s a big responsibility, when my parents are working and I have to babysit,” said Smith, who is so accustomed to doing so that at the Press-Telegram preseason’s cover shoot he offered to watch a reporter’s baby while the photographer set up. “Sometimes they feel a little like my kids, but I really love it.
“When my friends might be at the movies and I’m home babysitting, I don’t mind that. When it comes down to it, it’s family first.”
After his family comes his team. That’s why Smith has been an unusual find at Poly — a top talent with a freshman’s humility and grace. In the middle of the Jackrabbits’ CIF championship playoff run last year, secondary coach Doc Moye watched as Smith and a few of his teammates played catch after practice.
“We’ve had guys with as much talent as him before,” he said. “But what’s really different is all these guys love the hell out of that kid. There’s no jealousy whatsoever.”
Smith has been on television a half-dozen times, has been CIF Player of the Year, was named an All-American and made game-clinching plays in almost all of Poly’s playoff games last season. But he takes the success and attention in stride. He has no social media accounts and never talks about himself — only his family and teammates.
“I try to teach all of my kids that you don’t need fancy things, as long as you have family,” his mother said. “What makes us humble and happy is our love. We’re rich in love, and when you have that nobody can take that away from you. They can rob your money or your house, but nobody can touch your love for your family.”
Smith’s family — all of those brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins — have shown him love since day one. His mother pointed out they do that for everyone in the family who plays sports. She also wanted to make it clear Team JuJu puts “Team Poly” first and isn’t just cheering for their boy … although they do admittedly cheer a little extra for him.
“It just feels like we’re at home at my mom’s house on a Sunday having dinner,” she said of the Friday night Team JuJu experience. “It’s great watching the games together and I’m sure JuJu likes it. He hasn’t complained yet.”
With the pressures of recruiting and a high-profile athletic life, he said it’s nice to have his fans — his family — behind him. He also said he knows even if he couldn’t play football anymore he’d still have the city’s best cheering section.
“They’ll support me no matter what,” he said. “I know that.”
After all, they’re the ones who knew him first.