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Friday, November 30, 2012

Everybody Loves JuJu

There’s no other way to say it: Everybody loves JuJu.
Poly’s John “JuJu” Smith, Long Beach’s most complete football player even as a junior, has had his coaches raving about him all season long. He’s also had the city’s biggest individual cheering section, a big crowd of family and friends that have their own section at every Poly game, and have taken over social media postgame with #TeamJuJu comments.
“He’s a blessing,” says Poly coach Raul Lara, referring to Smith’s personality as much as his considerable talent. “He’s the world’s nicest kid, and he has a supportive family. There’s no baggage.”
There’s also no limit. Smith is an outstanding receiver, with a combination of size, strength, speed, and hands that you rarely see combined in one player at the high school level. Since the start of the Moore League schedule, he’s also played at safety, becoming a difference maker on both sides of the ball.
Asked if he liked playing defense, Smith smiles and says, “I like to do it for my team, yes.” Too honest to pretend to like defense as much as catching touchdowns, he nonetheless says he’d do anything to help his teammates win.
Last Friday against St. John Bosco, he managed to contribute huge plays as a receiver and a safety—he had five catches for 65 yards, four of them for first downs, including three on the game-winning drive. Then, after Poly scored the go-ahead touchdown, he made the game-clinching interception on defense.
“He’s the kind of kid—and I’ve been here long enough to recognize it,” says Lara, “He has a chance to make it all the way. He has all the tangibles to become an NFL player—it’s a long way there, but he has so much upside.”
To Smith’s credit, when asked about those tangibles, he just shook his head and smiled. 40 time? Shuttle speed? “I’m just a football player,” he says.
That job has included time spent returning kicks this year, and showcasing his skills as a great blocking wide receiver, helping to spring running backs Gerard Wicks and Manusamoa Lu’uga several times this year. He also lined up at tight end his sophomore season, and Lara has hinted he may feature him at running back next season.
It’s not just that his body type and natural gifts allow for that kind of versatility—hard work has given him a total skill set. In fact, San Jose State offered him a scholarship to become a Division 1 safety after watching his first day of practice at the position.
Cheering him on every step of the way is that large, loud family. Smith has two brothers and four sisters, and they’re at every game, along with his parents and extended family from all over SoCal. After big plays—like a third-down conversion that set up Poly’s game-winning TD—Smith will sometimes point at them.
“I like having them around,” says Smith. “It’s always good to have family behind you.”
Family, coaches, recruiters—they all love JuJu. The only people who don’t, it seems, is the competition.

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