- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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It’s 5:15 a.m. on Tuesday and inside the San Francisco Airport, an excited Scott Fujita is waiting to board a plane back to his beloved New Orleans for a full week of Super Bowl activities. As a linebacker with the Saints from 2006 to 2009, Fujita played a pivotal role in the team’s victory in Super Bowl XLIV while establishing himself as a tireless leader off the field in post-Katrina New Orleans and as an outspoken advocate for player safety inside the NFLPA.
Despite all this, at the beginning of the 2012 NFL season Fujita found himself at the center of the Saints' bounty scandal. And so, back in August, season 17 of the Flem File began with an exclusive, in-depth look at Fujita, who had come to personify the sport of football as it stood at a crossroads.
Three months later, of course, Fujita was exonerated of any wrongdoing in Bountygate by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. And, although he finished his 10th season on IR with an injured neck, Fujita continued his role as an advocate for player safety and as a board member of Team Gleason, a foundation to raise awareness and help ALS patients created by former Saints player Steve Gleason, who was stricken by the disease in early 2011.
As a way to neatly bookend the FlemFile’s "season," we decided to catch up with Fujita and, once again, tap into his unique perspective on Bountygate, Team Gleason, the best spots in New Orleans, playing in a Super Bowl, facing the 49ers' revolutionary read-option pistol, homophobia in the NFL and the growing issue of player safety in football.
So I just watched the PSA -- and I encourage everyone else to watch it here at TeamGleason.org -- pretty moving. I know Steve’s well known for his playing career in New Orleans, The Block against the Falcons in 2006 -- immortalized in the "Rebirth" statue outside the Superdome -- and now for his courageous fight against ALS. But you guys got some of the biggest names in the game to contribute in the middle of the season. How’d that come about?
I asked players on the Friday before Christmas and told them we needed to have everything wrapped by about Jan. 20. I expected a bunch of "Hey, we’re getting ready for the playoffs" or "Gee, I’m in the middle of the holidays can I get back to you later?" But by and large, every last person responded, "I’m on board, just tell me what you need me to do." I was floored by that.
It’s a really moving spot.
It turned out well. On one hand we wanted it to show just how brutal this disease really is. As they were reading the language in the spot, to be honest, a few of the guys became emotional. They realized the true nature of this awful disease and the fact that it has been under-funded and under-resourced and that with Steve we’re trying to change all that.
You guys have events for ALS awareness and Team Gleason all week in New Orleans, including an announcement on Wednesday by Chase that they’ve donated $350,000 to the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living and a concert hosted by Drew Brees at the House of Blues. But how do you want the average NFL fan to respond to all this?
The call to action right now is for people to stand with us to fight this thing. We need to find ways to end this disease right now. This disease has been under-funded and ignored for way too long. The purpose of this PSA is to get the NFL family to join forces and say in one loud voice, "It’s time to bring the best minds in the world together on this to find a cure." I just don’t know if there has ever been a champion for fighting this disease like Steve and like [former Ravens player] O.J. [Brigance]. It’s a unique time for the NFL and the ALS community and I’m expecting that we can get a lot accomplished. So I would encourage people to donate to TeamGleason.org or just continue to share the message, create more awareness and keep this issue on their radar.
I know when we talked during camp you shared an emotional story from after Steve was diagnosed in early 2011 about promising him you would go to the ends of the earth to help him beat this thing. I also know how much perspective he gave you during all the Bountygate stuff. How has the journey been with Steve since then: difficult, emotional, inspiring?
A combination of all that, really. He came to Cleveland in December for a procedure to give him a pacemaker for his diaphragm. And I’m telling you this man’s spirit just will not die. Steve has always had these really great, strong, charismatic qualities and those things have just been heightened since his diagnosis. He told me in Cleveland, "Hey, Scott, this spring, I want to go up to Machu Picchu." And I said, "You mean Machu Picchu in Peru? The one that’s like 8,000 feet?" And he goes, "Yeah, that one." And so I said, "All right, let’s do it." I have no idea how we're going to do that. But we’re going to do it.
We haven’t really talked since December when, after nine months of having your name dragged through the mud by the Bountygate debacle, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in and fully exonerated you of the whole thing. At the time I think I tweeted something like "After millions of dollars, thousands of pages of evidence and a three-year investigation, the NFL finally concluded what Scott Fujita has been saying since day one: He did nothing wrong." How are you feeling about it all now?
I feel as good as I can. I always knew from the moment we got into all this that once we put all the cards on the table and we were given what is the fairest forum we could get, it would all work out. I never really got that full forum to just go out and speak my full peace, though. Do I feel good about it? Yeah, I do. But I still don’t like the fact that I had to devote so much of my life this past year to debating something that was completely unnecessary.
Did you ever talk to Goodell?
No, I never have. The last time I saw him was when I went to league offices for an interview in November. We had a great meeting, it was cordial and very professional. Which is why I was so taken aback by his ridiculous re-determination letter to me.
Despite all that you must be excited to get back to New Orleans?
So excited. I’m looking forward to connecting with everybody and seeing Steve. And my wife is flying in for the game. If you’re in town you’ll probably find me curbside at Lucy’s [Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street], sitting with a bucket full of Pacificos.
That was my next question: You got some recs for New Orleans -- one or two must-sees or must-dos?
I almost don’t know where to start. When people ask I find myself composing these extremely long emails that include everything they need to see and do while they’re in town. But for me a couple things are a must: I gotta go back to Lucy’s -- that’s my old neighborhood. For lunch, I recommend Cochon Butcher all the time via Twitter. And then, my ultimate night in New Orleans, if I can pull it off, is to go to Jacques-Imo’s down in the Riverbend district on Oak Street and then go next door to the Maple Leaf Bar for the Rebirth Brass Band, who have had a regular show there for like 25 years. That’s the ultimate New Orleans experience.
What are you own memories of playing in the Super Bowl with the Saints in Miami?
When I was in college, at Cal, we never played in a bowl game. So I treated the Super Bowl like my bowl-game experience. I wanted to take it all in and have a lot of fun. That didn’t mean staying out all night, but more so, staying loose and enjoying the experience because, trust me, it’s usually a once-in-a-lifetime shot and it goes by so quick. Even on game day it still felt like recess. Running around on the field before the game, I swear, it’s like all the bumps and bruises from the season just disappear. It feels like you’ve found the fountain of youth. I think that carried over onto the game, we were all loose, we had fun, we enjoyed it and we played well.
The game just goes by so fast, it’s like a blur. Beforehand though, everyone’s like, "Make sure you hydrate, this game will drag on forever, halftime will feel like forever." But honestly, it felt like it went by in a blink of an eye.
I’ve had a lot of players tell me that, including Ben Roethlisberger -- that you almost have to stop and remember one or two specific things or the entire experience is lost forever because of the tunnel vision it requires to win it.
For me, the memories I have are from afterward. After we had won. Embracing [defensive coach] Joe Vitt on the sidelines and saying to him, "We are world champions!" Then watching the floodgates open and see all the family and friends come running out onto the field and the confetti being dropped and watching it fall down on to my daughters’ faces. That’s the stuff I remember the most.
In 2009 and at the Super Bowl that year you were one of the pioneers in the NFL to speak out for equality and other LGBT issues. [Flem side note: This interview was conducted before 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told a radio host he would not accept a gay teammate.]
I know there are great stories about the Harbaugh brothers and Ray Lewis retiring but there’s room also to use the massive platform at the Super Bowl to create a conversation and to talk of things of value. And that’s what Brendon Ayanbadejo is doing and it’s one of the great things about the Super Bowl -- that you get this huge platform. I remember when I endorsed the National Equality March in the Fall of 2009 and it created a little bit of buzz because there were not a lot of guys talking about this kind of thing in our sport. When we got to the Super Bowl in Miami you have these big media days and, yeah, a few folks came by and asked me some questions on it but by and large no one even knew how to have the conversation about it. It was so far off everyone’s radar at the time. So it’s nice to fast-forward three years later and see the media and the fan base and everyone else in the game being much more willing to have this conversation.
I think a few years ago if an NFL player came out it would have been the biggest news ever. But now I think, in a few more years, if a football player comes out it’s not going to be a big deal at all.
There will come a time -- whether it's five, 10, 15, 20 years from now -- and we’re all gonna look back and go, I can’t believe we were even having that conversation, how embarrassing. Our grandkids someday are gonna be like, what, you guys did what? What was the issue? I have family members who were held in Japanese internment camps inside the United States during World War II and when I tell people that they are shocked to learn we did that or acted that way in this country. Looking back on it now, they can’t even fathom that kind of thing. It’s gonna be like that.
I think it’s a media thing, too, because the only thing we cover is when one player says something homophobic.
Just a few years ago the perception was that football was such a homophobic sport and all the players were extremely homophobic inside the locker room. I remember telling reporters from outsports.com: "You would be surprised at how accepting and tolerant a majority of the players in the locker room really are." And the best way to find that out is to just ask them: Hey, how would you feel if you had a gay teammate? And would you be accepting of that? What I’ve found is that this conversation is being had inside locker rooms more and more just in the last year and the overwhelming majority of players are responding, "Yeah it would absolutely not be a big deal at all."
Does the 49ers' somewhat revolutionary offense with Colin Kaepernick give you nightmares?
I said before the playoffs even started: If I were a defensive player the one team I would be the most concerned about is the 49ers. Because you just never know what they’re gonna unveil that week or any week. That’s the offense I would hate to have to match up against.
Is it because it leaves defenders flat-footed and second-guessing instead of in attack mode?
Even if you study and stay disciplined and you have a good defensive end and everyone sticks to their assignments and you all attack that thing just right, you still have a QB who can flat outrun you to the flat, turn the corner and be gone. Once he stretches that perimeter, even a little bit, there’s nothing anyone can do. Once he beats you to the edge, now you’re relying on a safety to come downfield to make a tackle, or a corner to come off a block and make that tackle and that’s just really, really hard to do. Mike Vick would run that read option on us back when he was in Atlanta and he’d run for 150 yards but more often than not we’d win those games. Now you’ve got Kaepernick, who’s so strong. That makes him hard for a smaller guy to tackle. He’s also turned out to be a really good pocket passer. So he can get you that way too.
Is this offense revolutionary?
It’s not that what the 49ers are doing is all that unique or new. It’s that they’ve got a guy who can do all of it really, really well.
OK, finally, you’ve also been an outspoken leader with the NFLPA on player safety, which remains a big concern and a huge topic. What did you think of President Obama saying he would have reservations about letting a son play this sport?
What he said was very insightful and thoughtful and I know a lot of parents are weighing that same decision right now. I tend to agree with him, in that I feel lucky that I have [three] girls and won’t have to have that conversation, to tell you the truth. Parents do need to be properly informed about the risks so that they can make an educated decision about letting their son play football.
This is just a weird time right now. The Super Bowl is like a national holiday but at the same time I think even fans are starting to catch on and be affected by what this sport does to the players. How do we all reconcile these two sides to our national pastime?
It’s tough. You talk about rule changes and fining players. But for the most part that’s not gonna solve the problem. All parties involved -- the union, the league and players themselves -- we all have to do a better job of taking care of guys when they leave this game, that’s the bottom line. This game, if you’re in it, is dangerous. We all know that now. So it becomes about taking better care of guys post-career. We are going through a huge culture change in football right now and everyone’s trying to adapt to that. And I think it’s up to all of us to navigate these new waters and figure out the best approach.
Steve Gleason said it best on HBO, that this game played within the rules is what’s dangerous. To me, it’s not about the occasional big hits you see where guys are getting knocked out. Those are gonna happen, they will always happen, unfortunately. But more so it’s the repetitive pounding of the head on an every-down basis, over and over and over again that you cannot avoid and there’s no way to avoid.
I worry the game is so far behind on this safety stuff it will never catch up.
We just need to learn more about what has created this condition and more about how best to treat it. Bring together the brightest minds around the world to look at these problems. I’m not an expert, I don’t pretend to be, but we are clearly missing something here. People want to do the right thing. Everyone wants to do the right thing. So it’s about finding out what the right thing is. We’re all kind of walking on egg shells right now until we figure out what the next best step is, but we just don’t know right now. No one really knows right now. Football remains unpredictable and explosive. And that’s why so many people love it.