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Smith-Schuster leads by example

With Pittsburgh Steelers training camp beginning on July 25, a lot of fans are reflecting upon last season with disgust.

Failing to make the playoffs was unexpected, but some positive stories emerged. One of them was at wide receiver.

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC in 2017, some fans were puzzled. I was among them. The team already had substantial depth at wide receiver.

As a rookie, Smith-Schuster was the youngest player in the NFL. He didn’t even have a driver’s license, opting instead to ride a bike to get around Pittsburgh.

At the time, I thought maturity issues could cause problems. He couldn’t legally drink a beer, and if he walked across the Heinz Field parking lot, he would have been denied access to the nearby casino.

Nevertheless, Smith-Schuster has demonstrated more maturity than many of his older teammates, getting elected team MVP in 2018 as a result.

After an end-of-game fumble last season, he was in tears as the Saints celebrated their hard-earned week 16 victory. But instead of making excuses or hiding from reporters, Smith-Schuster publicly apologized, stating, “I let everybody down.”

I don’t have to tell Steelers fan that throughout last season, the team struggled with me-first veterans. Martavis Bryant whined enough to get traded before the season even started. Later, Antonio Brown did the same. LeVeon Bell’s holdout provided an ongoing distraction, too.

James Connor’s success helped minimize that issue. However, with never-ending distractions, the Steelers struggled all season against less talented opponents.

As Bryant, Brown and Bell focused on themselves, Smith-Schuster was, in contrast, acting as a leader both on and off the field.

Before last season began, he put together football camps in Pittsburgh and California, teaching youngsters football skills and valuable life lessons. He emphasized good nutrition, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and the benefits of hard work. Smith-Schuster brought in teammates, including Connor, whose battle with cancer is an inspiration for local youngsters.

As he reflected on his camp’s success, Smith-Schuster said, “it’s a blessing to give back to the community.”

In February, Smith-Schuster formed a foundation that will allow him to further extend his reach in Pittsburgh. Meals on Wheels, the United Way and Boys and Girls clubs have benefited from Smith-Schuster’s efforts thus far.

Additionally, this summer he was tapped by the NFL to assist in establishing the NFL Academy, a London-based initiative geared to enticing European youngsters to play football. More than 1,000 youngsters have already enrolled in the program.

Like others his age, Smith-Schuster routinely uses Instagram and Twitter, a potential trap for any athlete. Thus far, he has managed to navigate those treacherous waters.

In one case, after his bike was stolen, a porn star tried to “friend” him by referring to him as her “favorite follow.” He wisely declined that invitation, telling her “I’m young, not stupid.”

Teammates seem to enjoy his lighthearted humor. He is now the Steelers number one receiver, and, as such, will have to step up as a more vocal locker-room leader. Hopefully, his leadership style will be effective, but time will tell.

The Steelers will face unique pressures in 2019. Most experts are predicting that another team will win the division. Beyond that, the schedule is brutal, with an opening game in Foxborough against the Patriots.

Regardless, this season’s Steelers might be more fun to watch than last year’s highly talented roster.

Multiple distractions might give way to youthful enthusiasm that is more committed to team unity than personal accolades.

Trumpbour is a professor of communications at Penn State Altoona. He authored the book, “The New Cathedrals, politics and media in the history of stadium construction.”

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