It all started with a couple of hats: one was gold, the other cardinal.
On February 5, 2014, a 17-year-old 5-star safety from Long Beach Poly High School (Calif.) and an 18-year-old 5-star athlete from Junípero Serra High School (Calif.) took a leap of faith and committed to USC amidst the heart of NCAA sanctions.
Three years and a few position and name changes later, Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson once again made a decision together and are embarking on the journey to the NFL Draft.
“I just think of it like a ham and cheese croissant. I’m the ham and he’s the cheese and everybody likes ham and cheese so I just treat it like that,” Smith-Schuster said while smacking his hands together symbolizing the slices of croissant. “For us to come in together and leave together, it was a fun ride.”
Jackson described their relationship off the field with a different analogy.
“I think it’s like a movie,” Jackson said with a smile. “If you were to have a music video or a movie, that’s probably what we’d look like off the scene. People just want to be around us because we always have the high energy, a bright personality, make sure the people around us are having fun.”
Their skills on the field led to countless accolades; for Jackson, it led to a unanimous first-team All-American selection and the Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back; for Smith-Schuster, it was a place in USC’s top-5 career reception list and second-team All-Pac-12 honors. It was the way they did it, though, that left fans chanting “one more year:” the charisma, the energy, the smiles.
“When we came in, you saw Reggie Bush and then we wanted to leave that legacy behind where people come here because of us,” Jackson said. “We want people to come after us and say we want to go to ‘SC because of Adoree’ or Juju. Then later on down the line, you have Deontay Burnett, you’ve got Sam Darnold, you’ve got Iman Marshall. So then those guys, when they leave, people will want to go to the school because of them... We just wanted to make sure people don’t forget about ‘SC, so we did that.”
In order to commemorate their time on campus, Jackson and Smith-Schuster partnered with Seattle-based artist Keegan Hall to make a hand-drawn portrait of the duo. Hall, known for his portraits of former President Barack Obama, Seattle Sonic’s legend Gary Payton and Seahawks’ safety Kam Chancellor, uses only a single pencil when drawing.
“It’s something that everyone can relate with,” Hall said. “Not everybody paints, or does ceramics, or stuff like that, but everyone has tried to draw with a pencil.”
Hall studied art at the University of Washington before joining the Sonics’ sales department and eventually moving into the start-up business, completely giving up his artistic pursuit. It took more than a decade for a tragic moment to draw him back.
“I actually thought I would never draw again,” Hall recounted. “I had no intentions and then my mom unexpectedly passed away actually. I was just thinking about her one day and what she actually enjoyed, the times we spent together growing up and my art was sort of that constant. She was always my biggest fan, my biggest supporter so I just sat down one day and drew a picture and posted it online.”
It didn’t take long for him to get noticed.
He was asked to draw Chancellor by one of his followers and the Seahawks’ defensive back was so impressed when he saw it, he shared it on social media. From there, Hall’s success took off.
“People think you just get great naturally,” Hall said. “I grew up dirt poor and lived in a trailer park until high school and that’s when we got our first house. I didn’t have any special privileges growing up. I had to work for everything that I had. That’s why I really like athletes because they have that similar story.”
Multiple charity nights and TV appearances like Good Morning America later, here he sits with Jackson and Smith-Schuster in a room on USC’s campus signing 500 copies of their portrait, titled ‘Trojans for Life.’
On the surface, the portrait depicts Smith-Schuster running downfield with his eyes sharp as a cheese grater. It was an image Hall took from USC’s 2016 season opener loss to Alabama in which Smith-Schuster had only one catch. On the left side it features a squatting Jackson, clinching his hands and letting out a scream of joy after securing his second interception of a mid-November upset of No. 4 Washington. Hall says he chose those images not only because it showed the players at work, but also for the deeper meaning. The transition from a beat down in game one to knocking off a top-5 team and ultimately a Rose Bowl victory resonated beyond the field.
“I thought it was just the ultimate bounce back, never give up mentality to just push through the difficult times,” Hall said. “It goes beyond football, whether it’s life or anything, but I thought that was like added symbolism into the piece itself.”
Jackson also weighed in on the significance of his pose.“It just shows how much emotion, how much passion I play the game with,” he said. “You can have any other picture of me doing a stiff arm, catching a ball or just playing in my stance, but I wanted to show how much passion I play the game with.”The trio first met up in January shortly after the players declared for the NFL Draft. Jackson and Smith-Schuster were told about Hall’s work by a friend and from that point it was just a matter of setting the connection up. With all of the accomplishments the duo achieved throughout their collegiate careers, it wouldn’t be out of question for both of them to have their own portrait, but that never crossed their minds.
“Coming in, it was also Juju and Adoree’ or Adoree’ and Juju. It was our show,” Jackson remembered from his first days on campus. “You go into the bookstore and you had the 2 and the 9. It was basically always branded and put together so we decided to keep it that way.”
Thrust into the limelight as mere teenagers, Jackson and Smith-Schuster grew up with the eyes of the nation watching. They made the decision to come to USC together with the idea of rebuilding a sanctioned program. They led both sides of the ball by example, playing through injuries and looking to help the team in any role they could. They ultimately made the decision, you guessed it, together, to leave for the NFL. It was a friendship forged by skill, personality, authenticity and drive. It was a friendship they’ve seen before.
“Me and Juju just sticking together like a tandem, like a duo, like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, that was us at that time,” Jackson, an Illinois native, said. “Scottie and Mike. That’s the memories that I have with him. Always with ups and downs, it’s always been ups.”
While they may not have won six rings or be in the Hall of Fame, the USC careers of Jackson and Smith-Schuster can still be remembered hanging in the hall in a frame.
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