To the surprise of many earlier this week, Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was activated from what was supposed to have been a season-ending injury suffered in Week 5, and took the field for Sunday night’s Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The receiver had not been expected to return this season, but managed to fight his way back to the field for the team’s lone postseason game. And even on a limited snap count in Pittsburgh’s season-ending 42-21 loss, Smith-Schuster still tied for the team lead with five receptions, which went for 26 yards.
As he explained in a postgame press conference shared by the team, Smith-Schuster’s reasons for deciding to return to the field for the postseason were similar to the reasons that he spurned more money elsewhere as a free agent to return to Pittsburgh for an additional season: He wanted the chance to play with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger again.
Sunday’s game was the likely last one of Roethlisberger’s 18-year career. And for the last five seasons, he has shared the field with Smith-Schuster, who was only seven years old when Roethlisberger began his career with the Steelers. After getting his chance to play with Roethlisberger one final time, Smith-Schuster had a lot of thanks to express to the man who’s been his starting QB in the NFL.
“Honestly, I can give that guy my whole career. I appreciate all the other quarterbacks that I played with in the past, but he’s one special, unique guy,” Smith-Schuster said, of Roethlisberger. “When I first came in, I told everybody, I used to watch Big Ben. I’ve always wondered what it felt like to be in that huddle, to go down and drive and to score the winning touchdown to win the game. Fast forward about 10 years, I’m in that huddle and hearing him say what he says.”
There was no game-winning drive to be had on Sunday. Both teams started slow on offense, and Kansas City found its footing quicker than Pittsburgh, going out to a 35-7 lead at one point before Roethlisberger led a pair of touchdown drives late. Facing Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes (who threw five touchdowns), the second seed in the AFC eliminated the seventh-seeded Steelers, and likely closed the book on Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career.
Since 2017, that career has included Smith-Schuster, who has Roethlisberger to thank for the vast majority of his 323 receptions, 3,855 yards, and 26 touchdowns across 63 regular season games. He has also helped Smith-Schuster to one Pro Bowl appearance, and the team’s MVP Award in 2018. Save for a season where Smith-Schuster played with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges while Roethlisberger was injured almost the whole year, Roethlisberger is the only starter Smith-Schuster has known in the NFL, and the pairing has helped the young receiver become a known name across the league.
“I can give my career to that man. Everything he’s done up until now, I appreciate him so much. So it mean so much to me that I, I knew it was a big risk to put myself on the line to come out here,” Smith-Schuster said. “While I was doing my exit physicals to end the season, I got cleared by the doctor and I was like, ‘You know I’m playing.’ There was no hesitation, there was no doubt that I wanted to be out there with seven. And he felt comfortable with me being out there. We never lost that chemistry.”
As an upcoming free agent, Smith-Schuster’s risk came in that, had he suffered another injury or aggravated the one he suffered in Week 5, he could have missed out on a possible lucrative contract this offseason, after settling for a one-year deal this past offseason when a big-money deal didn’t materialize.
The chance to bring in five more receptions from Roethlisberger and get 60 more minutes on the field was worth the risk, and puts a final chapter on their time together, as Smith-Schuster enters another offseason as a free agent, and nearly guaranteed to play with a new quarterback next year, in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
“I don’t know what his next plans are, for his future. But I would say thank you seven for everything you’ve done for me. On the field and off the field, as a man,” Smith-Schuster said.