January 29, 2019
By Mike Guardabascio
For the first time ever, three Long Beach athletes received Pro Bowl honors this year, as Poly alums JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jurrell Casey were joined by Wilson alum Joel Bitonio. It was the first Pro Bowl appearances for Smith-Schuster and Bitonio, both of whom have a strong chance of becoming mainstays. Casey was unable to play at the all-star event in Orlando last weekend as he’s rehabbing a knee injury sustained at the end of the regular season.
When Smith-Schuster and Bitonio walked into the locker room 3,000 miles away from Long Beach, they were greeted with a surprise, a little piece of home in the form of a commemorative sticker on the back of their helmets. This year as part of a special “Hometown” initiative, the NFL placed stickers representing every Pro Bowl player’s high schools on the back of their helmets. So when Smith-Schuster picked up his Steelers helmet, it had a Long Beach Poly sticker on it; Bitonio’s had a Woodrow Wilson High School sticker.
“That’s pretty cool,” said Bitonio. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
Smith-Schuster and Bitonio both played well for the AFC in a game their team won 26-7. There was a slight scare when Smith-Schuster left the game with a knee injury, but it was declared not serious and he’s ready to go for the offseason. The future looks bright for the second-year stud–ESPN declared him one of the 10 players who ascended to “stardom” in the NFL this year, and the day after the Pro Bowl it was announced that he was the NFL’s best-selling jersey this season.
Bitonio just finished the second year of a six-year deal with the Browns, and is one of the team’s best players, as one of just three Pro Bowlers.
Casey’s Pro Bowl nod was his fourth consecutive–if he makes another Pro Bowl, he’ll set a new Long Beach record for most appearances. He has four years left on his deal with the Titans.
Long Beach looks to be entering a new golden age of local products starring in the NFL. Just as local products dominated Major League Baseball headlines and All-Star Games for a decade, the next several years could get even more Long Beach-heavy on Sundays. There have been 14 Long Beach products throughout history to have made the Pro Bowl, and three of them made it there this year, with all three looking like they’re at the beginning of or in the middle of strong careers.