Scott Fujita is helping to bring the Saints back to life. And that’s the least surprising thing about him.
by David Fleming
It’s odd at first.
When you push open the massive mahogany door of Scott Fujita’s warehouse-style loft in New Orleans, there’s a Mardi Gras-style balcony up front and an exposed wall of burned-black bricks near the back. Yet despite how much Fujita says his Japanese heritage means to him, there’s no Asian-influenced decor anywhere to be seen. Then he leads you around a corner to his den. And there, sitting on a white metal computer desk (next to Barack Obama’s new book) is a stunning blue ceramic recreation of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
Admiring the piece as he moves, Fujita seems too tall and fluid to be a linebacker. Then he sits down, and his desk—now in the visual frame with his massive shoulders, back and forearms—suddenly looks like a TV tray. Fujita begins opening files on his computer, and with each click he reveals the most cherished artifacts of his remarkable journey, from adopted child to college walk-on to discarded draft pick to centerpiece of the resurgent Saints defense.
He opens a picture of his parents, reaches out to touch their faces on the screen. Given up by his birth mother when he was 6 weeks old, Scott was adopted by Helen and Rod Fujita and raised in Camarillo, Calif. Helen, a retired secretary, is white. Rod, a retired high school teacher and coach, is a thirdgeneration Japanese-American. He was born inside an Arizona internment camp during World War II.
Fujita opens more photos. There’s one of him holding hands with his wife and college sweetheart, Jaclyn, on Senior Day at Cal; this was a few months before the Chiefs took him in the fifth round of the 2002 draft. There’s another one of him playing Pee Wee football, the chubby-cheeked, blond-haired, green-eyed kid with the Japanese name on his jersey. There’s another of his paternal grandmother, Lillie, who once overheard him introducing himself like this: “Hi! I’m Scott. I’m 4. And I’m Japanese.”
“I swear I’m not delusional,” Fujita says, chuckling at the memory. “I know I don’t have a drop of Japanese blood in me. But what is race? It’s just a label. The way you’re raised, your family, the people you love—that means more than everything else.”
Many adopted kids grapple to come to terms with who they are and where they came from, especially those raised by parents who don’t look like them. But Fujita says he doesn’t struggle with his identity, never has. First as a child and now as a football player, his path to success has always been about the same thing: defining for himself who he is. “That’s the connection point for Scott,” Lillie says. “You choose to be what you are. It’s not your location, your obstacles or your skin. You. You choose. He learned that from his family.”
Not that he wasn’t tested. When his parents took him and older brother, Jason, who was also adopted, to stores, they got the occasional odd looks. Sometimes Scott had to show his ID to substitute teachers who didn’t believe that his last name belonged to him. And he ate so much rice with chopsticks that he was 8 before he knew what to do with a baked potato. But he shrugged off most of it, confident in thinking of himself as half Japanese at heart. To his dad, it was even simpler: “American, Japanese. To me he’s always just been my son.”
Every Jan. 1, the Fujitas celebrated Shogatsu, Japanese New Year’s. Every May 5, Rod would raise a koi flag on a bamboo pole in the backyard in honor of the Japanese national holiday of Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day). But because Rod had become, as he says, “Americanized,” most of Scott’s knowledge of Japanese culture came from Lillie and Nagao, Scott’s grandfather.
The two were extremely strict with Rod when he was a kid, but they spoiled their grandchildren. Nagao often showed up unannounced at school to take Scott and Jason out for ice cream and to go toy shopping. During these field trips, Scott would sit in the backseat of Nagao’s car, gazing at the California coast while listening to tales of great samurai warriors, Japanese art and history, and majestic places like Mount Fuji. “When you’ve never met a single blood relative in your life,” Scott says, “the idea of ethnicity and blood relations takes on a different meaning. I found a very beautiful and interesting culture filled with dignity, respect and honor, and it became mine.”
He also connected to his ancestors through his anger about, and empathy for, Japanese-American residents who were interned during World War II. His grandparents had a wrenching story to tell. In 1941, Lillie and Nagao were students at Cal, planning to get married. A few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lillie was crossing the street in Berkeley when another female student ran up to her, screaming in her face, “You little Jap, why don’t you go back home!?” Lillie is a tiny, demure woman. At his wedding reception, Scott got down on his knees to dance with his grandma, only to discover he was still too tall. But that day in 1941, she roared back: “I’m an American too. And a better one than you are!”
Two months later, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066: the forcible evacuation of 120,000 American residents of Japanese descent to 10 internment camps. To avoid being separated, Nagao and Lillie married before the order was carried out. Shortly after, they were forced, along with their families, to relocate to an Army barracks in Gila River, Ariz. Unable to pay their mortgage, Nagao’s parents lost their farmland in Ventura County.
The government did allow Nagao to leave camp and return to college, but only at a school it approved: BYU. Lillie had to stay behind. Amazingly, after Nagao graduated, he enlisted to fight for the very country that was imprisoning his family. Deployed to Italy, he fought with the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated battalions of the war. While Nagao was overseas in 1943, Lillie gave birth to Rod at the camp.
On Jan. 2, 1945, FDR revoked his executive order; the last camp closed in early 1946. Nagao attended law school at Cal on the GI Bill, then moved with Lillie and Rod back to Oxnard, where he became one of the first bilingual attorneys in Southern California. He died in 1988. A year later, Lillie received a reparations check for $20,000 and a written apology from then-president George Bush. The letter, which Scott keeps on the computer in his den, says in part: “Your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality and justice.” Even now, Scott gets angry when he mentions how Japanese internment was never brought up in school. His desktop is full of research on the topic, including photos of the camps and government documents.
Given the depth of his feelings, it makes sense that Fujita has adopted the ideals of perseverance that sustained his grandparents. As a high school freshman in 1994, he was his father’s height: 5’6″. Over the next three years, he shot up to 6’4″ and became a star safety for Rio Mesa High. But lacking mass, he drew meager attention from major D1 schools, and Cal offered him a shot to walk on only a few months before his graduation.
Fujita redshirted his freshman year, but not before blowing away coaches in his first camp by helping out the injury-plagued Bears at safety even though both of his hands were clubbed up with tape—one because it was broken, the other because of a nasty gash. The Bears gave him a scholarship the next spring, and he added 20 pounds to his 6’5″ frame while switching from safety to linebacker. But as a sophomore in 1999, he was plagued by nerve stingers in his neck. Following the season, he had career-threatening surgery that put him in the ICU for three days and a neck halo for a week. That was March. By August, he was cracking skulls again in live practice drills. Two seasons later, he was among Cal’s leading tacklers. “I call it Pat Tillman syndrome,” says former Cal defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich, now at Texas Tech. “There are a few players you come across who give their heart and soul to the game. That’s Pat Tillman, and that’s Scott Fujita.”
In Kansas City, Fujita’s relentless play led his teammates to name him the Chiefs’ best rookie of 2002, and he topped the team in tackles in 2003 and 2004. At times, though, he suffered from “walk-on disease.” Fearing the next bad play might be his last, he stressed and pressed, not realizing that often the only difference between good and great linebackers is just a stutter step—the split-second difference between thinking through a play and reacting on instinct. “I used to be the guy running around, banging his head on the walls before a game,” Fujita says. “Not anymore. Sometimes success is more about relaxing and getting comfortable.”
And finding the right fit. After making over their linebacker corps, the Chiefs traded Fujita to Dallas five days before the 2005 season. He started the final eight games for the Cowboys and made enough plays to draw interest, as an unrestricted free agent, from Dallas, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Oakland. His first trip, though, was to New Orleans, where former Cowboys assistant Sean Payton had just been hired as head coach.
The first time Fujita met with Payton in his office at the team’s practice facility (which had been used as a national command center during Katrina), he was struck by how Payton had embraced the Saints’ role as sports savior of New Orleans. Sappy or not, Fujita wanted to buy in, if only because he thought that embodying something bigger than the game would bring out his best as a player. “The hurricane, my family’s internment, issues of race—I feel like all that is a part of me when I play.”
Shortly after his sit-down with Payton, Fujita and Jaclyn were enjoying dinner at Emeril’s when Saints GM Mickey Loomis called to thank him for visiting. “I’m ready to sign,” Fujita blurted. Ten minutes later, Loomis raced in with a contract in his hands. Fujita got a four-year, $12 million deal for dessert, and the Saints got a key piece for their rebuilt defense without breaking the bank.
On Sept. 25, during the grand reopening of the Superdome on Monday Night Football, Saints defensive back Mike McKenzie introduced Fujita to a national TV audience by calling him “the Asian Assassin.” On the very next play, Fujita erupted through a crack in the Falcons line and sacked a thoroughly shocked Mike Vick, forcing a fumble and a fourth down. Fujita celebrated with a fist-in palm samurai bow (a move now being mimicked on high school football fields in New Orleans). The Saints then blocked the Falcons’ punt and recovered it in the end zone to begin the 23-3 romp.
By the time the Saints reached their Week 7 bye, coming off gritty wins over Tampa and Philly, they had morphed from Katrina recovery mascots to contenders. Most of the hype has centered around the backfield of Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, but the real credit belongs to the Fujita-fueled defense that ranked fourth in the NFC through Week 8. Playing behind a dominant, attacking front four, Fujita is often left unblocked, free to shoot run gaps, roam the deep middle and wreak havoc 80 feet in either direction. He has prototypical size, strength and speed, but it’s his lightning-fast presnap recognition that keeps him one step ahead of opponents and all over the stat sheet—a team-high 55 tackles and two picks, plus 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and five passes defensed. “In the huddle,” McKenzie says, “he looks like a missile ready to launch. He’s everywhere out there.”
Lest anyone want to dismiss Fujita as an overblown do-gooder, note his $7,500 bill for a low hit away from the action on Carolina’s Steve Smith in Week 4. Or the red, swollen cleat scars up and down his shins, courtesy of illegal leg whips by blockers—the ultimate sign of respect in the trenches.
Halfway through the Saints’ bye week, in fact, Fujita’s shins are still so swollen and discolored that he has to gimp the last few blocks home from his favorite sushi joint, Rock-n-Sake (home of the Mt. Fujita Roll). When he gets home, there are half a dozen UPS boxes full of Pottery Barn picture frames waiting for him. One of the candidates for the new frames is a photo of the banner that Fujita’s neighbors made for him after the Eagles game. Spread out across his parking space, the sign reads: McNabb Got FUJITA’ED.
It was a nice gesture, and it’s a decent enough photo, but the universal truth behind the message is what makes Fujita eager to frame it: the idea that no matter where you’re from or how you were raised, no matter what you look like or who you play for, when fans turn your name into a verb, well, you’ve arrived.