PITTSBURGH — A weathered, orange construction paper sign taped to a chain-link gate greets JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“Congrats JuJu,” it reads. “Most 100 yd receiving games before 23. LIT!!! Love, your dog park friends.”
Beyond the gate is Smith-Schuster’s refuge from the craziness of his everyday life as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top wide receiver.
More importantly, though, it’s a wonderland for Smith-Schuster’s four-legged son.
“This is his Disneyland,” Smith-Schuster said as he watches his 2-year-old French bulldog, Boujee, race around a pile of woodchips with a pack of dogs three times his size.
Since being chosen in the second round of the 2017 draft, Smith-Schuster has been steadily building a prominent off-the-field brand while also developing into the next Steelers standout receiver. First, he was the young, likeable guy who rode a bike to the Steelers’ training facility. Then, he gained clout as a gamer and a YouTuber. Now, he has a new brand: dog dad.
The dog park is an idyllic setting, sandwiched between a railroad track and the Monongahela River, and currently accessible only via walking trail. Luckily for Smith-Schuster and Boujee, the leafy pedestrians-only trail is a couple steps from their apartment. Once on the trail, it’s a 10-minute walk to the park.
Opening the gate at the park, Smith-Schuster is greeted by a giant, furry Alaskan malamute named Tank. The 14-month-old dog is a regular at the park, and Smith-Schuster is taken with his size and fluffiness.
“Can you imagine how much that dog sheds,” he says, shaking his head.
There’s also a brindled puppy with white paws named Obi, whose owner, Emily, recognizes Boujee from other trips to the park.
Smith-Schuster’s conversations with other dog owners are the same conversations all dog owners have while they watch their dogs burn off a day’s worth of energy.
What’s your dog’s name? How old is he? What kind of dog? How big will she get? Does he sleep with you in your bed, too?
Smith-Schuster, 22, is like other dog owners shivering at the park, except for the football questions that inevitably get mixed in with the dog-centric small talk. Like everyone else, he takes videos of his dog playing, but when he posts them on social media, they’re broadcast to thousands — sometimes millions — of people. And, there’s the elaborate annual birthday parties he holds for Boujee.
On this trip to the dog park, Smith-Schuster carries a grocery bag with a present inside. It’s for Heinz, a white Frenchie who couldn’t make it to Boujee’s King-themed second birthday party at Dogtopia, a dog daycare and spa, a few weeks ago. Smith-Schuster, with assistance from his friend and fellow Frenchie owner Nicole Celko, had gift bags filled with dog toys, treats and cash. Even better, the owners of the 10 dogs who attended got two tickets each to any Steelers game this season.
Celko, 25, is also owner of a Frenchie named Portia. Portia happens to be Boujee’s girlfriend.
Smith-Schuster wasn’t a dog person growing up.
A bad experience with a Chihuahua at 10 or 11 years old made him scared of dogs.
Smith-Schuster remembers getting out of the car for summer school in Long Beach, California, and seeing the little dog across from him. He wasn’t crazy about dogs, so as he crossed the street toward the dog, he started sprinting.
“The dog started running after me,” Smith-Schuster said. “So I just ran straight, as fast as I can. It chased me all the way into the classroom. I got scared. Jumped on a table. It was in the classroom, and a teacher got it out.”
After that, it took a while to get over his fear of dogs. But as he got exposed to more and more dogs, his anxiety dissipated.
Once he moved 2,500 miles to Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster decided the one thing he needed was the one thing that scared him the most as a kid. He needed a companion. A dog, he decided, would be the perfect addition to his life.
After a conversation with Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who owned three Frenchies at the time, he settled on that breed.
Not just any Frenchie, however. Smith-Schuster chose a $6,000 blue French bulldog, rare for its light gray coat. Picking out the dog took a little bit of research, but choosing a name was much easier.
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Migos’ song “Bad and Boujee” was popular in 2017, charting for 14 straight weeks after reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And, Smith-Schuster said, the name reflects the NFL lifestyle.
“Being in the NFL, bougie, you know, pretty spoiled,” Smith-Schuster said. “So with that name being said, he gets whatever he wants, does whatever he wants. That’s pretty much why I call him ‘Boujee.'”
The dog was bred in Northern California, and when he was a couple weeks old, Boujee was flown to Pittsburgh to meet his dad.
“Getting a dog was a new step to my life,” Smith-Schuster said.
It’s a step that’s required him to grow up in many ways. In addition to the daily responsibilities of feeding Boujee and getting him exercise, Smith-Schuster has to worry about getting him to the vet, which includes scheduling nose surgery for Boujee over the summer.
“Frenchies, their nostrils are a lot shorter than others because it’s compressed, and it’s harder for him to breathe,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s why he makes those pig sounds. I would say he’s half pig.”
With the busy schedule of an NFL player, Smith-Schuster can’t do it all by himself. In addition to trading off dog-sitting duties with a fellow Frenchie owner, Smith-Schuster gets help from a local dog trainer who takes Boujee out for an hour every day, and sometimes, Boujee goes to doggy daycare at Dogtopia.
“He’s considered a service dog. I don’t know what kind of service he does for me. I guess emotional support. That’s what I say.”
Smith-Schuster also schedules nearly daily playdates with other dogs, whose owners reach out to Boujee’s dad through Instagram. Often, he takes Boujee to those meetups himself. In many cases, he admits, the other dog owners are most excited to meet him.
“We each get something out of it,” he said.
Through the portal of Instagram, Smith-Schuster chronicles his adventures with Boujee on both his personal page and Boujee’s own account.
He brings followers on drives to restaurants with Boujee sitting shotgun. He captures Boujee licking peanut butter off his face and escaping from his playpen. And, most importantly, he documents Boujee’s love story.
A year and a half ago, Smith-Schuster and Boujee met Celko at a Cheesecake Factory not far from the Steelers’ facility. Celko was eating at the bar when she saw Smith-Schuster and Boujee come in to pick up takeout. As the owner of a Frenchie herself, Nicole walked up to them and asked if Boujee was friendly. Her dog, Portia, was outside in the car. Then the two dogs were introduced. Boujee was taken with Portia immediately.
Last season, Celko reached out to Smith-Schuster prior to the Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers.
“If no one’s watching Boujee,” she texted him, “I’ll watch him during the game.”
The pair have traded dog-sitting duties ever since.
Most of the videos of dog parks and walks with Portia are posted to Boujee’s Instagram account, which boasts more than 226,000 followers. The goal, JuJu says, is to reach 300,000.
“Instagram is a younger crowd mixed with a little bit of an older crowd,” said Smith-Schuster. “He did have a Twitter. It’s inactive right now, but he mainly just focuses on Instagram just because it’s more common, it’s more popular. It’s more of his fit. He’s a pretty lit dog, which is awesome.”
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Running a social media account without opposable thumbs is difficult, so Smith-Schuster handles posting duties from Boujee’s page. He started the account just a few days after receiving the puppy, making three posts featuring the month-old dog with a knit sweater, hat and a fall leaf. Not long after, Boujee posted again, this time wearing a furry hat with the caption, “It’s getting chilly and I’m hiding my bat ears!” Among the 228 comments was one from his dad, “There goes that boy Boujee,” with a slew of emojis.
“With [Boujee’s] page, I kind of put it in his perspective, like, OK, I’m Boujee,” Smith-Schuster said. “I talk as Boujee. A lot of dogs will hit up Boujee to hang out and play. … Frenchies have their own personalities. Moreso, on his Instagram, Boujee is Boujee.”
At Smith-Schuster’s urging, Celko created an account for her dog, and on Nov. 26, 2018, the pair became Instagram official with a post of them wearing coordinating Steelers gear. “PLEASE EVERYONE, FOLLOW MY GIRLFRIEND, @portia_from_pittsburgh.” Portia, who now has nearly 26,000 followers, commented, “Thanks babe.”
“Boujee’s like, ‘Yo, make an Instagram, we’ll be the most popular couple in Pittsburgh when it comes to dogs,'” Smith-Schuster said. “So, she did. She made it, and Boujee keeps shouting her out and showing her love, which eventually got them to be the best couple in Pittsburgh.”
Sure, their owners are anthropomorphizing the relationship between Boujee and Portia in their social media posts, but it all comes from observing the two dogs interact.
“We joked that they’re dating, but they do get along really well,” Celko said. “Sometimes they’ll be at my apartment while I’m at work and I’ll have a camera on them. They like to cuddle. They’re always playing with each other. We just feed off of them and how they interacted with each other.”
If Boujee and Portia aren’t the best couple in Pittsburgh, they’re definitely one of the more recognizable. Celko was watching the pair during the Pittsburgh marathon earlier this year and laughed when people running by pointed out the dogs.
“Everyone running by was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Boujee and Portia!,” she said.
For Smith-Schuster, these relationships — with Boujee and the community — have given him a reprieve from his daily stresses.
When he leaves home, Smith-Schuster tries to bring Boujee with him almost everywhere. Because he’s certified as a service dog, Boujee goes along with Smith-Schuster to restaurants, and even inside at Target and Walmart.
“He’s considered a service dog,” Smith-Schuster said. “I don’t know what kind of service he does for me. I guess emotional support. That’s what I say.”
A year ago, Smith-Schuster posted a picture to Boujee’s account of the wide receiver wearing an orange suit, bent over, holding Bojuee up on his two hind legs for a kiss.
“I love you dad,” he captioned it.
“Love you too, man,” Smith-Schuster wrote back from his account. “Change my life!!”