Thursday, September 23, 2010
Carmel Valley transplant Scott Fujita was an Academic All-American at UC Berkeley who graduated with bachelor’s (political science) and master’s (education) degrees in the time it takes most student athletes to find the library. But football fans weren’t calling him smart when he was the first free agent to sign with the 3-13 New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina.
For that matter, they didn’t describe him as bright when the father of two spoke out on gay-marriage rights from testosterone-thick National Football League locker rooms. And no one felt the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound linebacker was genius grade for leaving the Saints after they claimed Super Bowl Champion XLV… for Cleveland. But maybe another seemingly dumb move helps demonstrate the heart hidden behind these habits.
Not long before Fujita left for Cleveland, he stood atop a float inching through a renewed NOLA. The frenzy below contained all of the delirious madness befitting a community known as much for its festiveness as for its afflictions.
A million Saints fans danced in the streets. They drank. Screamed. Freaked. Sang. Nudity made more than a cameo. A city, a people, a big, beat-up bayou was free to celebrate like never before.
Mardi Gras had nothing on it: People can count on the calendar hitting February every year. Nobody could count on the one-time “Aints” edging Brett Farve’s Minnesota Vikings in overtime, let alone stunning big favorite Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.
Atop the parade, Fujita’s eyes met those of fellow linebacker and defensive stalwart Jonathan Vilma.
“It was like we knew what the other was thinking,” Fujita says.
No public safety officer in Louisiana would classify what they were thinking as intelligent.
• • •
Fujita’s move to Carmel Valley made a little more sense. It was sunny, and central to important bases Berkeley and Ventura, where he grew up. Scott and his college-sweetheart/wife Jaclyn had always dug the area when they drove through.
“Once we had kids,” Fujita says, “we felt this was a place where we could raise them.”
He adds that the abundance of outdoor activities was “a huge draw”: “I’m a big-time beach/mountain/hiking/kayaking guy. Or at least I think I am.”
Two other portentous turns happened by way of Berkeley. One, Fujita galvanized the inhuman work ethic that drives him to this day. Two, he started to look beyond the ball.
The major reason: The future fifth round pick was a walk-on for the Bears. He says he could feel the tap on his shoulder coming – That’s it, it’s over. So he trained until he couldn’t feel anything.
“I felt I had to outwork everyone else,” he says. “I was the guy in at 6 in the morning, working out till I threw up, [which was] almost every single day.”
Despite his All-Pac 10 play, the Bears hibernated. They played 11 games his senior year and lost 10. But in a cosmic kind of way, that might’ve been what his now-heroic odyssey required. He identifies it as the first time he was playing for something bigger than football: “We were playing for respect.”
Interestingly, though, while Cal’s reputation as a petri dish for free speech remains alive – and Fujita even wrote for The Daily Californian – outing injustice was one instinct Fujita didn’t learn on campus. That came earlier.
• • •
The “domecoming,” the first Saints home game after the endless rows of beds filled with Katrina’s broken had been replaced by rows of desperately hopeful fans, aimed the Saints at interdivision power Atlanta Falcons. At the time the Falcons were flown by the quickest quarterback to strap on sneaks, Michael Vick. On just the third play of the game, Fujita roared through the line and snuffed slippery number 7 to force a punt.
The stadium shook. Writers scrambled to find the words to equal the scene. And Fujita debuted a celebration for his new tribe, executing his signature samurai warrior salute: One hand over a fist, with a bow of respect.
That Japanese storyline was new to NOLA, but forever central to Fujita. Adopted at a month and a half old by a Japanese-American coach and teacher, Rod, and his Caucasian secretary wife, Helen, he would quickly become as accustomed to a predictable question as he was to rice and mochi ice cream. Why did a big, white superstar student-athlete have a last name that had teachers scrambling to check his ID?
What wasn’t as predictable, though, is how much those questions would shape a young Fujita, who saw opportunity to acknowledge wrongs he was shocked weren’t mentioned in his history books.
“As my story unraveled, it started to come out that my dad was born in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona,” he says. “For a lot of people it was the first historical context they got, the first time they heard that. That story alone breaks through so many barriers – racial prejudice and discrimination – and reaches so many people.”
And so a pattern started. Fujita identified a unique platform.
“For me, I have a window of opportunity,” he says. “The average [NFL] career is 3.6 years. Today people want to ask you questions, know what you think, but no one’s gonna care in a few years. Players do have a responsibility to kids and organizations who care what we think.”
As his issue assessments have grown more regular – abortion rights, bringing the troops home sooner, same-sex marriage – people across the country have recognized how uncommon that is.
“He was the smartest guy in the locker room,” New Orleans sportscaster Fletcher Mackel writes by e-mail. “He talked politics and rebuilding New Orleans. He was outspoken about not getting a chance to talk to then-President [George W.] Bush when he visited and was outspoken about what he wanted to see newly elected President [Barrack] Obama do once he took office.
“He cares about issues that matter to everyone… not just millionaire athletes.”
Covenant House Director of Development Renee Blanche goes on at length at what he’s meant to the haven for homeless teens in New Orleans: “Scott is a guy that uses his voice to speak up for those who cannot for one reason or another, for what he believes in, and I would hope that someday, we can all do that without persecution.”
And he does more than talk. Half his $82,000 playoff check went to wetlands recovery. “It was something [Jaclyn and I] think we could actually make a difference in by using the visibility of the Saints,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Given his own history, he campaigns on behalf of adoption efforts. Because of his mother’s two breast cancer survivals, he tackles that too.
His methods of rallying fans are as progressive as his politics. He invited fans to write letters to win plane tickets to a New York football game over one Christmas, and an hour later thousands descended on the TV station he broadcast from with hand-written letters – “white, black, old, young, rich and poor, all out there on a freezing December night, laughing and joking and praising Scott and the Saints,” Mackel says. He helped start Who Dat Fish, a series of sushi dishes named after fellow Saints that raised thousands for charity (and plans a similar benefit series in Cleveland).
“I’m a born-and-raised New Orleanian,” Mackel continues. “We always say here that you have to be a fourth or fifth generation to truly consider yourself a local… but Fujita is considered a local because of what he did on and off the field, and the love he showed the city. People will also never forget that he was the first player – not Drew Brees – to sign with the Saints post storm.”
• • •
Call Fujita the anti-LeBron. Where one hero saw adversity in Cleveland, another saw opportunity. Where one saw struggle, the other saw rabid fans, sturdy guys and a chance to redeem another city hurting hard. Where one was the number-one pick out of high school, the other barely made his Cal squad, admitting “nothing came easy.”
There is an imagined film of failure clinging to Cleveland. But, like New Orleans, there is great hope, and a mounting buzz around the Browns (though they’ve started the season 0-2). In that, Fujita finds something familiar.
“They have great fans who are desperate to win,” he says. “Desperate to have a team commit to them like they commit to it.”
Later talk returns to this theme. “I’ve been in a place to see football be a big catalyst,” he says. “I thrive as a player when I have something bigger to play for.”
• • •
Back on the top of the ungodly Super Bowl parade last February, Vilma and Fujita made their move, leaping from the float and into the frothing, benevolent flood of people.
“‘F*** it, let’s go for it,’” Fujita remembers. “‘We need to go down and party with our people.’ We jumped off, the whole float joined us, a mass celebration of hundreds of thousands with us. The cops were going crazy trying to get us back on the float.”
The massive family Fujita danced with in those cobblestone streets will claim him as their adopted son forever. Plenty of reports indicate Cleveland already has. Nevertheless, Scott Fujita has adopted Carmel Valley as his own. Here’s a guess that the Monterey County community will soon return the favor.