New team, but a familiar challenge for Browns linebacker Scott Fujita

By Mary Kay Cabot, The Plain Dealer

May 23, 2010, 11:41PM

BEREA, Ohio — Scott Fujita had the same gut feeling about coming to Cleveland this year that he did about New Orleans in 2006: it wasn’t just a football team that he could help, but a city too.

John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer; Scott Fujita found a big salary and another chance to help revive an NFL franchise in accepting the Browns' free-agent offer. “We love to explore new areas of the country and for us that’s part of it," he said. "It’s not just playing football. We also know there’s a great fan base here, so we’re excited about that.”

“The Saints were coming off a 3-13 season and we moved there seven months after Hurricane Katrina,” said Fujita, signed as a free-agent linebacker in March. “The place was a train wreck, and a lot of people thought we were crazy for even wanting to visit that team. But there was something about that — the idea of turning the place around.”

Fujita and his wife Jaclyn moved into the heart of New Orleans, near the French Quarter, and dedicated themselves to restoring the region and the coastal wetlands. To them, it felt like a higher calling, a chance to do something bigger than football.

Fujita also worked tirelessly on other charities in the city, especially the two that are closest to his heart, children’s services and breast cancer research. Born to a teenage mother, Fujita was adopted at six months old by Helen and Rod Fujita, who also adopted his older brother, Jason. Fujita volunteered countless hours for the Covenant House in New Orleans and other children’s agencies. His mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor.

In January, after the Saints won the Super Bowl, Fujita donated half of his $83,000 championship earnings to gulf restoration and Haitian Earthquake relief. For his efforts, he was named Saints 2009 Man of the Year, an achievement that meant just as much as the Lombardi Trophy.

But Fujita was just as passionate on the field as he was off it.

After spending his first four seasons in Kansas City, Fujita was traded to the Cowboys in 2005, where he spent the season with then-assistant coach Sean Payton. In 2006, when Payton took over as Saints coach, Fujita was the first free agent he signed. The second was quarterback Drew Brees, and in many ways, the two laid the foundation for the Super Bowl victory that was to come.

In his first game as a Saint, Fujita showed his appreciation by excelling against the Browns. Starting at strongside linebacker, he made seven tackles, an interception and forced a fumble en route to a 19-14 victory. Fujita went on to lead the Saints with 119 tackles, helping lead them to the NFC Championship Game — a remarkable feat for a team that had gone 3-13 the year before.

The emotional leader of the defense and a team captain, Fujita led the team in tackles again the next season, and finished fourth in 2008. In 2009, he missed five games with knee and calf injuries, but still managed 75 tackles and made an impact in the postseason, including six tackles and a fumble recovery against Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game.

Fujita, 31, hoped to have a chance to repeat with the Saints, but they didn’t show nearly the commitment that the Browns did: a three-year deal worth $14 million, including $8 million guaranteed. With incentives, he can make up to $16 million.

“It’s a huge change, but it’s a change that my family’s embracing,” Fujita said. “We love to explore new areas of the country and for us that’s part of it. It’s not just playing football. We also know there’s a great fan base here, so we’re excited about that.”

Fujita and his wife, who have twin young daughters, so loved what they saw and felt in Cleveland that they canceled their visit to Arizona the next day.

“I do know the city to a certain extent is suffering right now,” Fujita told the Associated Press soon after he signed in March. “Unemployment is really high and I know they want great football again.”

Fujita also saw that the Browns were assembling a locker room full of high-character guys — his No. 1 priority. They added other team leaders such as Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Tony Pashos and Ben Watson.

“All the guys are great,” said Fujita. “No one’s afraid to go to work. One thing I learned I down in New Orleans is that you bring in good people and that’s how you win and I found that here. Couple that with all the players who are already here and showed a lot of resolve in the last four or five games last season, people who are hungry to win — that’s something I want to be a part of.”

Fujita will also finally get a chance to play for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whom he met in 2002 on a pre-draft visit to New England, where Ryan was linebackers coach.

“I wasn’t recruited coming out of high school, and my only visit coming out of the draft was to New England,” said Fujita, a walk-on at California. “Rob took me out to lunch and bought me a hamburger, and I thought it was the coolest thing. It was a little dive bar, but still, somebody bought me a hamburger.”

Fujita thought the Patriots would draft him, but the Chiefs took him in the fifth round instead. Ryan kept in touch and tried to land Fujita again in 2006 when he was with the Raiders, but Fujita signed with the Saints.

“When I came here, he said, ‘it’s about time I finally coached you,'” Fujita said. “I’ve always respected the way he coaches, and I’m excited to play for him.”

Fujita, who worked with the first team at right outside ‘backer during OTAs, said he’s in his prime despite playing eight seasons and can play inside or out.

“I’ve done a lot of both and feel comfortable both ways,” he said. “I think they’re going to turn the guys loose and let them play.”

Fujita will travel to New Orleans on June 16 to receive his Super Bowl ring, then he’ll get back to work here the next day.

“Now I’m on the same mission, which is to win a championship and try to bring that to Cleveland,” he said.

© 2010 All rights reserved.

Filed in: Press Room • Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

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Scott Fujita

Scott Fujita was born in Ventura, California on April 28, 1979. He was a three-sport standout at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, CA before heading to the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with Honors in Political Science and earned a Masters degree in Education.

Fujita has played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns. Read more