Saints’ Fujita defies stereotypes

MIAMI – The first time Scott Fujita(notes) met his future father-in-law Gary Stiles, the high school senior repeated a line he’d been using since he was a 4-year-old: “My name’s Scott. I’m Japanese.”

Fujita joined the Saints in 2006.
(Bill Haber/AP Photo)

“My father pulled me aside and said, ‘He knows he’s not Japanese, right?’ ” Jaclyn Fujita recalled Tuesday night as she and her husband, the New Orleans Saints’ agile outside linebacker, dined at a downtown Miami restaurant. “I laughed and said, ‘Yeah, he knows.’ ”

However, as the Meryl Streep/Alec Baldwin/Steve Martin romantic comedy proclaims, it’s complicated.

Fujita, a Caucasian born to a teenaged mother, was adopted as an infant by a Japanese-American father and white mother. He identifies deeply with Japanese culture and, on many levels, has been shattering stereotypes his entire life.

Fujita, 30, remembers countless occasions when he had to show his school identification card to prove to skeptical substitute teachers that a white kid could have a Japanese-sounding last name. When the Oxnard, Calif., native enrolled at Cal as a freshman – shortly after he had that awkward first meeting with Jacyln’s family – he arrived in Berkeley as a walk-on safety who, he says, was considered little more than “cannon-fodder” on the practice field.

Now, as one of the more important players for the NFC champion Saints in their impending Super Bowl XLIV matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, Fujita belies the common perception of the white linebacker.

“You know, the whole student-of-the-game thing,” Fujita said, laughing. “I’m ‘heady,’ and I always know where the ball is going to be, and I’ve got a ‘great motor’ and work ethic. But there’s no athleticism involved.”

The truth is that the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Fujita is a highly intelligent player with a ton of drive and determination. He also possesses uncanny range, quickness and a penchant for making game-turning plays, none more appreciated than the fumbled exchange between Brett Favre(notes) and Adrian Peterson he recovered at the Saints’ 10-yard line shortly before halftime of the team’s NFC championship game victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

“He’s a very sneaky talent,” future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk(notes) said of Fujita. “You don’t think he’s much of an athlete, but he is. He’s faster than he looks. And he’s a tactician. It’s hard to get him out of position. He’s no Patrick Willis(notes), but he’s a good athlete.”

Added another future Hall of Famer, former Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots linebacker Junior Seau(notes): “I like him. I like that he plays the run and the pass. He’s a smart player. He has great range and he has the passion. I always grade people on three things: being smart, fast and nasty. And he has all of that.”

For all of the deft moves Fujita displays on Sundays, the best one he ever made came nearly four years ago when, on the first day of free agency, he made up his mind to sign with the Saints following a free-agent visit. On paper, it made no sense – Fujita, who spent a year with the Dallas Cowboys after three relatively successful seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, was committing to a franchise coming off a 3-13 season and moving to a city ravaged by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Yet he and Jacyln saw opportunity. “We sensed there was potential to do something that was much bigger than football,” Fujita recalled. “I’ll never forget the conversation we had that night in our hotel room. We were whispering – Jacyln’s a bit of conspiracy theorist and was convinced the room was bugged – and we said, ‘This is it.’ ”

So Fujita canceled free-agent visits with the Jaguars, Eagles and Raiders and became the first player to sign after coach Sean Payton’s arrival – two days before quarterback Drew Brees(notes) came aboard.

“That was a really important, under-the-radar signing for this franchise,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis recalled Tuesday. “The credit really belongs to Sean Payton and [former defensive coordinator] Gary Gibbs, who knew him from Dallas. It was a position we were really light at, and he was a perfect fit for us. From his free agent visit on, he and his wife just embraced their role not only as being here to play football but as citizens of this community.”

The Fujitas moved into a fashionable condominium seven blocks from the Superdome in the city’s Warehouse District, one they now share with 2-year-old twin daughters Isabella and Delilah. Heavily involved in charitable efforts for causes ranging from adoption to breast-cancer awareness to wetlands restoration, Scott was the Saints’ 2009 nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

He’s also a socially conscious man who isn’t afraid to express his opinions. Last fall, Fujita endorsed the National Equality March for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and he is an outspoken defender of civil liberties, something he traces to his family’s experience with Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Fujita’s grandmother, Lillie, was placed in such a camp in the Arizona desert while Scott’s grandfather, a member of the U.S. military, fought in Italy.

“My father was born in a camp, for God’s sake,” Fujita said. “It’s a horrible chapter in our history, and it bothers me that, like most people, I wasn’t even taught about it in school. It’s something I feel very strongly about, especially after 9-11, where there were so many similarities with people’s civil liberties being violated. It scares me, and that’s why I speak out as much as I can.”

Fujita isn’t shy about talking on the football field, either. A former Chiefs teammate swears that after sacking Favre, then the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, to spark a Kansas City comeback, Fujita stood over the future Hall of Famer and yelled, “It starts now, bitch.”

“I don’t remember saying that,” Fujita said, laughing. “But I could have. People tell me I say some crazy things on the field.”

Then again, when you’re a lightly recruited player from an off-the-radar high school (Rio Mesa) with no Division I scholarship offers, you can’t afford to be subtle. When Fujita got to Cal as a 6-foot-4, 195-pound safety who was the last man on the depth chart, his intensity on the practice field routinely perturbed his veteran teammates.

Fujita (left) prepares to recover Peterson’s fumble.
(Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

“I was kind of the annoying, walk-on, ‘Scout Team All-American’ who irritated the old guys,” Fujita explained. “There were times when [future NFL offensive linemen] Jeremy Newberry(notes) and John Welbourn(notes) made me pay for it. It was hard not to feel excluded, especially when everyone was lining up for training table and I wasn’t allowed to eat. [Washington Redskins defensive end] Andre Carter(notes) would sneak me food all the time. He really took care of me in every way. He’s my brother from another mother.”

Fujita persevered, earned a scholarship after his freshman season and became a standout player for the Golden Bears. The Chiefs took him in the fifth round of the 2002 draft.

He had a breakout season in ’03, leading the team with 111 tackles and seemed headed for a long career in Kansas City. Then, Fujita said, “they brought in [defensive coordinator] Gunther Cunningham, who’s a [expletive]. And you can quote me on that.”

Fujita makes a point of crediting the coaches he says helped him along the way, including former Cal defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich, ex-K.C. coach Dick Vermeil, former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and Gibbs, who was fired from the Saints after last season. Fujita is grateful to Vermeil for trading him to Dallas shortly before the start of the 2005 season after he had lost his starting job to free-agent signee Kendrell Bell(notes) and to Parcells for “helping to get my career back on track.”

In New Orleans, Fujita has been on a rollicking joyride, one which literally landed “The Human Torpedo” in the training room following an infamous daredevil performance at a waterslide park during training camp of ’07. Fujita also coined the “Snow Patrol” nickname for him and fellow linebackers Scott Shanle(notes) and Mark Simoneau(notes) (currently on injured reserve), goofing on the notion that, in Fujita’s words, “75 percent of the white linebackers in this league play for the New Orleans Saints.”

On Tuesday night, as he and Jaclyn enjoyed a break from kid-chasing – Jaclyn’s mother was watching the girls in the family’s hotel room – Fujita, who will be a free agent after the season, reflected on his journey and the good times he hopes are ahead.

“Football is great,” he said. “But the game is only part of it. For us, it’s all about the overall experience.”

And as he has been telling anyone who’ll listen since he was four, the Scott Fujita experience is more complex than it appears on the surface.

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010