- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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ON MARCH 1, SCOTT FUJITA STOOD IN A DARK and still hospital room in Monterey, Calif., feeling very much like a man in full.
As his wife, Jaclyn, and newborn daughter, Marlowe, slept peacefully, Fujita's mind wandered back over a football career that began 14 years earlier at Cal, up the coast from his hometown of Oxnard, Calif. With an intensity and commitment coaches would later compare to Pat Tillman's, Fujita willed himself into becoming a Pac-10 standout at linebacker while earning a master's degree in education from Berkeley. In 2009, he not only won the Super Bowl with the Saints but was recognized as the team's man of the year for all of his charitable work. Fujita's peers held him in such high regard that the following season, he was named to the NFLPA's executive committee. In that role, he helped negotiate the current collective bargaining agreement and became a leading advocate for player safety.
In 2010 he signed a three-year, $14 million contract with the Browns. He had money in the bank, a beautiful home and the family he and Jaclyn had dreamed of ever since they started dating at Cal.
Then his iPhone lit up. A reporter was calling with questions about his role in a pay-for-injury scandal that would later be universally known as Bountygate. As he listened, Fujita braced himself against the back of a couch in the hospital room.
The fairy tale was over.
THIS HAS BEEN one of the most tumultuous and important offseasons in NFL history. For Fujita, the moral conflict and utter confusion that defines the league in the concussion-crisis era first hit him in that sleepy hospital room. Looking down at his chubby-cheeked baby, his third daughter, he knew exactly what was at stake. When she Googles my name someday, what will come up?
For a decade, Fujita had been perceived as a pro's pro. But with his connection to Bountygate, millions of fans are left to wonder if maybe he isn't such a good guy after all. "That thought has eaten away at me," he says. "And it turned every day this offseason into an emotional roller coaster."
In March, a few weeks after Fujita and his family left the hospital, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six. The "risks to our players and to the integrity of the game," Goodell said, required "a very significant and clear message."
In May, the commissioner handed down player suspensions: linebacker Jonathan Vilma, one year; defensive end Anthony Hargrove, eight games; defensive end Will Smith, four games; Fujita, three.
The players denied the charges, but the NFLPA, claiming that Goodell lacked the jurisdiction and neutrality to arbitrate the case, instructed them not to participate in the NFL's investigation. Instead, they petitioned U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan to grant them an injunction on the suspensions and a new hearing with an impartial arbitrator. As of mid-August, Berrigan had yet to rule.
The NFL intended the Bountygate penalties to be seen as a long-awaited landmark stand against the dirty, violent underbelly of the sport. "This happens on every team," says one high-profile NFL player who recently revealed to The Mag that his team had a $1,000 bounty on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers last season. "The NFL was decades late on Bountygate, and the punishment Goodell dished out to Vilma could have been dished out to players on every team."
But Bountygate has exposed a much deeper issue facing today's game. The NFL is under pressure to curb the violence and head trauma that affects the long-term health of its players. In the league's response, the lines will constantly shift between what's acceptable and what's not. After this offseason, few people understand this as well as Fujita. "I'm sympathetic to what Roger is going through, trying to keep the game from sinking into quicksand," he says. "It's a complicated time right now in football. We're all trying to figure out how to adapt to a changing culture, a changing game and a changing league."
In the NFL's case against Fujita, he and the league actually agree on a major part of the evidence. Everybody acknowledges that over a long period, Saints coaches and players collected cash and handed it out to those who made big plays. But the sticking point lies in the interpretation of "big plays." Fujita admits he kicked in money for sacks, pick sixes and forced fumbles -- and nothing more than that. When asked for a rebuttal, league spokesman Greg Aiello provided this statement: "We respectfully disagree with Scott Fujita's assertions. Our extensive investigation clearly established that the Saints operated a prohibited bounty program that rewarded players with cash payments for plays that resulted in opposing players being injured and 'carted off' or 'knocked out' of the game. Our information was corroborated by multiple independent sources with firsthand knowledge. The evidence of the program was overwhelming."
Seven witnesses, including interim Saints coach Vitt, have testified under oath that there were no bounties, according to the NFL definition. "That's what allows me to sleep at night," says Vitt, "knowing in my heart, knowing in our hearts, that we never ever, ever put a pot together to hurt another player."
This is where some of that confusion comes in: If the Saints' money was set aside only to incentivize big plays, is that still a bounty? Three years ago, no
way. But what about now, with mounting proof about the long-term health issues associated with repetitive head trauma and the concussion lawsuits? In that context, could anyone today logically reward a teammate for forcing a fumble without knowing that it will most likely require a violent, jarring hit? "I understand that the lines are blurring and moving on all of us," Fujita says. "But the NFL got this wrong, all wrong. They opened a can of worms with this investigation."
The gulf in semantics between the league and its players was on display in Canton during the Hall of Fame game in August. In the first half, Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis beat his blocker and knocked down Arizona's Kevin Kolb on a clean, hard play that forced the quarterback from the game with bruised ribs. In the vernacular that the NFL alleges the Saints players used between 2009 and 2011, Ellis had just achieved a "cart-off" and would have been eligible for a cash reward from the pay-to-perform pool. By the league's definition, that would be considered a bounty.
But can Goodell go back and retroactively punish players for what they did before our perspective on violent hits changed so drastically? What's more, if incentivizing big hits is now dirty, then to some degree so is everything about football: from the pool cash that NFL players earn to the helmet stickers that college players get as rewards for de-cleating a quarterback, all the way down to the peewee coach who gives out high-fives for hard tackles. For now, the NFL has taken a stand only against what it has defined as bounties but has not commented on pay-for-performance pools. "If we want a culture change in football, we better be careful what we wish for," Fujita says. "You want rule changes, you want to get rid of hard hits and take better care of players long term? Okay. But can you balance that with the business interests of the game without pushing football to the fringes, to the point where in 20 years soccer will be the No. 1 sport? That's a huge change to go through, and there will be some major growing pains along with it."
Fujita himself is torn. He's not sure how much the game needs to change or if he even wants it to. While lying in bed recently with Jaclyn and Marlowe, Fujita watched one of the central pieces of Bountygate evidence: the 12-minute clip of Williams' vicious "Kill the Head and the Body Will Die" pregame speech imploring Saints players to injure specific 49ers before a playoff game in January. The unfiltered glimpse into football's locker room culture overwhelmed Jaclyn, and even Scott was choked up. He felt caught in the middle, struggling to find football's moving line. "I used to be one of those guys banging his head against the wall before games," Fujita says. "I used to love 'knockout' speeches. Heck, I gave 'knockout' speeches. I look back now and think, Oh my god, how embarrassing, what a meathead I was. But I evolved."
Just down the hall from Fujita's bedroom is the spot where, in 2011, he broke down after learning that his best friend, former Saints special teamer Steve Gleason, had ALS. Recent studies indicate that football players may be up to eight times more likely to get the disease than the general public. After receiving the news, Gleason, Fujita and tight end Eric Johnson took a predawn hike in the inky darkness and fog to the top of San Francisco's Twin Peaks along with a Chinese healer. "I remember two things very vividly," Gleason writes in an email. "Scott had to pee a lot because he drank so much of Master Wang's tea, and during a short meditation/prayer, Scott turned to me and said, 'I'll walk to the ends of the earth with you if that's what it takes.' "
This spring, thinking about Gleason and all the things Fujita had done in his 10 seasons in the NFL -- the good, bad and the ugly -- the linebacker saw the game he loved in a different light. He now sits on the board of Team Gleason, a foundation to raise awareness and help ALS patients. In May he accompanied his former teammate to a United Nations technology summit, feeding him dinner and helping him use the bathroom. "I don't know if it's me who's changed or just some of the things I've learned about the game and the
effects it has had on some of my former teammates who are hurting now," Fujita says. "But watching the Williams video made me emotional too, and it made me think, We've got a long way to go in this game."
ON MAY 2, the NFL's new and old worlds collided. Just before noon, Goodell announced the suspensions of the four Saints players, including Fujita. A few hours later, chilling news emerged from San Diego: Twelve-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau had shot himself in the chest. He was 43 years old and became the eighth member of the 1994 Chargers Super Bowl team to die. The death of such an iconic player so soon after his career ended personalized the issue of long-term health problems suffered by football players even more. By the end of the summer, more than 2,000 former NFL players had joined forces in a massive, potentially crippling concussion case against the NFL.
In mid-May, Vilma filed a defamation of character lawsuit against Goodell in which his lawyers contend, among other things, that the pressure of the concussion case is playing a part in the way the commissioner is handling current events. The theory is that by making a big public stand against Bountygate, the league can argue in court that it's being aggressive in eliminating excessive violence in the game.
Fujita has been a vocal critic of the NFL on player safety issues, especially the league's proposal for an 18-game season. At the same time, he knows firsthand that players are part of the problem. He now admits that he suffered a concussion during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLIV but hid the symptoms from teammates, coaches and trainers in order to stay in the biggest game of his life. He made four tackles against the Colts but was violently ill in the following days and needed almost a month to recover. After Fujita's injury-plagued 2011 season, family and friends began to ask him what has become the central question facing the game and its athletes
today: With everything we know about the long-term health risks associated with concussions, why would anyone continue to cross that line?
At the end of last season, after his exit interview with coaches, Fujita sat inside an empty Browns locker room contemplating an answer. He has thought about it nearly every day since his phone lit up in the hospital. And now, at B Spot, a burger joint near his home in Westlake, Ohio, just hours before the start of his 11th season, Fujita begins to speak but then stops. He falls silent for a moment, massaging a fresh three-inch scar on his right hand in which doctors inserted 20-plus screws last December to repair a shattered bone he sustained against the Bengals.
He's now ready to speak, and what he has to say could be the perfect summation of how we all feel about the nation's most popular sport and the massive culture change that must take place for football to remain sustainable. "Football has branded me," he begins. "This mentality to embrace and ignore the brutality of the game and be rewarded for it is ingrained in us from a very young age. When I was 9, I broke my ankle and dislocated a finger playing football, and I remember my dad saying, 'Don't worry, you'll live.' My godfather, a man I love and respect, was my high school football coach. I got stingers all the time in my neck. I made a tackle and could barely move, the pain was so paralyzing. When I tried to run off the field, he waved me back on. 'Be a Spartan, Scotty!' he yelled.
"When I got to the NFL, for the first time I was coached to use my head as a weapon. We were told over and over 'to get off a block, you thump a guard, spear him in the chin with the top of your helmet, separate, disengage and go make the tackle.' Well, using your head that way works. It really is the most efficient way to take on a blocker.
"So now you've been in the league a couple years. You love the game and love your life, but you start to wonder, Is that good for me? And quietly, you try to
be less violent and not use the crown of your head so much. Only now you're not as effective. And you know it, and the huge balancing act begins. Do I want to protect my brain? Or do I want to make 15 tackles a game and keep my job? Because right behind you on the depth chart is a 22-year-old kid who is more than happy to come down the field full speed and stroke that guard right in the chest with the crown of his head, over and over and over again. Only he doesn't have a wife and three kids. He hasn't seen friends from football suffer and die.
"If we want to talk about really changing the culture of the game and the game evolving, that right there is what we should be focused on."
A FEW HOURS LATER, just before stepping onto the field to run his conditioning test at Browns training camp, Fujita hears there's a chance that Judge Berrigan in New Orleans might overrule Goodell and lift the suspensions. On this day, with the weight of Bountygate temporarily lifted, he beats most of his teammates by 20 yards.
At age 33, Fujita has lost some strength and striking power, but he was in the gym at 6 a.m. almost every day this offseason, and he's as fast as ever. His fellow linebackers joke that he should have finished the test, raised his middle finger and kept running off the field into the sunset. "For all that Scott has done for football, it's not fair what football is doing to him right now, dragging his name through the mud," teammate D'Qwell Jackson says. "There isn't a guy in our locker room who doesn't think he'll be cleared, and it's hard for the outside world to understand how much that means. When you walk away from this game, all you leave with is the name on the back of your jersey."
That's what Fujita is after now, the ultimate victory over the sport that so few players ever achieve: getting to leave on his own terms, with his brain, reputation and love of football still intact. After his second preseason
practice with the Browns, he is sitting under a tent near the team facility. Ominous purple clouds roll in. "If I take one snapshot of the bad things -- concussions, the lockout, Bountygate -- and just focus on that, then I'd be pretty pissed off at football right now and maybe forever," he says. "But for my own well-being and sanity, when I step back and look at the whole thing with a wider scope, I realize I still truly love this game. I really do."
Just as Fujita finishes speaking, the skies open up with a heavy downpour. He steps out from under the tent and walks off toward the locker room. Even now, he refuses to run from the storm.