As we approach the end of the 2011-12 NFL season, I decided to reach out to a respected league veteran to discuss his thoughts on the sport of professional football, the challenges next year’s rookie class will face, his experience competing against Peyton Manning as a member of the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV and what it has meant to accomplish even greater feats off of the football field.
Enter Scott Fujita: Ten-year NFL veteran, Super Bowl XLIV champion and current starting linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.
Mr. Fujita is a man whom I have long had a great respect for, not just because of what he has been able to accomplish as one of the better linebackers in professional football, but because of his contributions off of the field through various charitable organizations.
Scott and I spoke over the phone this past Friday and he was happy to share his thoughts on the various topics.
Ryan: What is it that first inspired you to pursue a career in football?
Scott: “My dad was a freshman-level high school football coach, so I was always around the game. I grew up as a ball-boy; for those of us in my neighborhood and around town who were athletic and liked to play sports, that’s just kind of what we did.
"I never really thought of football as a career, or even an option for a career. I liked to play sports, I enjoyed it. My priority was always about school. I was trying to cover all the bases with my education. I got the opportunity to walk on at Berkeley and it was great because that was the school that I wanted to go to. So to have a chance to go there and be part of the program, to compete for a scholarship and graduate with a degree from Berkeley, that was the priority.
"My junior year of college is when I was playing pretty well and was a starter; people started talking about some NFL buzz, the chance that I might get drafted once I graduated. So that was the first time that it really occurred to me that ‘holy cow, I can actually have the chance to play professional football.' ”
Ryan: You were a 5th-round draft selection in 2002. What advice would you give to young players preparing to enter the NFL in 2012?
Scott: “Be prepared for the grind. For young guys who come in now, football is such a year-round game. It’s a tough spot for them because you come through and you play your whole senior season and then if you’re lucky enough to make a bowl game, you don’t get any break between the end of the season and the bowl game. Then, you’re getting ready for your senior all-star game and then the combine, all the interviews that come with that, and then the draft.
"You’re with a new professional football team and you have to absorb a whole new offense or defense, the whole off-season program, training camp and then a twenty-week season. So it’s kind of never ending, it’s grueling, it’s exhausting, so really to prepare their minds for that. You have to stay in great shape and also understand that when you have a window of time to get away and freshen up, to clear your head from the game, it’s important to do so.”
Ryan: You started at outside linebacker for the Saints during their 2009 championship season. What can you tell me about your experience playing against Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV?
Scott: “It was just a blast; It felt like recess. People always ask ‘what was it like, was there tons of pressure, tons of stress?’ and I honestly didn’t feel any of that. I felt more pressure in the NFC Championship game in the Superdome to get us to the Super Bowl.
"When we actually got to the game itself, we were out there running around for warm-ups and all of the pain and bruising, everything that you’ve had all season long, suddenly just vanished. It felt like we had found the Fountain of Youth. We were out there running around, bouncing around like we were a bunch of kids in the ballpark. That was such a unique experience; it’s tough really to describe but it was a lot of fun.”
Ryan: What would you consider to be the defining moment of your NFL career?
Scott: “That’s a tough one. It’s tough because any part of my NFL career started for me when I was in college and when I got a call from our coach telling me that they were going to award me a scholarship. That was the first time I really felt like ‘hey, I can actually compete with some of these big-time athletes and I’m going to have a chance to play at the division-I college football level.' That was good for my confidence.
"In the NFL, when I was drafted as a rookie in Kansas City, I had a linebacker in front of me named Lew Bush (Lewis Bush); he was a great mentor to me and we were really tight my rookie season. He had played, I think, eleven years at the time. He knew that I was his backup and that eventually I’d be competing to take his spot. After the first four games of the season went by, he was the starter and I got a call from my position coach for week-five to tell me that I’d be making my first career start down at the game in San Diego.
"At the game, before the ball was kicked off, Lew Bush pulled me aside and said, ‘You have earned the right to be here.’ That had stuck with me more than anything else my whole career. It was the first time that I really felt that I belonged here in this league when I heard it from a guy that was kind of a mentor to me, someone who had played in the league for so long.”
Ryan: You are known to be a very active member of various communities, spending a lot of your time during the off-season contributing to charitable organizations. What current plans are you excited about this off-season?
Scott: “There are a lot of things that I’m interested in. For us as NFL players, the window of time to really make an impact and to do things you’re passionate about, to really raise awareness for things that you’re passionate about is relatively small. The average career length is usually roughly three to four years and I’ve been fortunate enough to play ten, heading into my 11th season.It is a small window of time to be able to talk about things you’re passionate about and also to be able to talk about things where people actually care about what you have to say. That’s just the reality of it.
"A good friend of mine, Steve Gleason, who was a teammate of mine down in New Orleans, was diagnosed last January with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I lost my uncle to ALS about 16 years ago. It’s incredibly aggressive. So to watch the way guys like my friend Steve and others with this disease just take it on with such courage and just face it, who can say ‘I’m not going to let this disease dictate how I live my life. I’m going to determine how I live my life with this disease.' I think it’s that perspective to me is so moving and so inspirational.
"We’re developing a foundation called 'Team Gleason,' a 501(c)3 we developed to really get the word out about raising awareness for ALS, doing things to help impact and affect the lives of patients around the country. There are a lot of things on the horizon.
"It’s almost less about the disease and more about the story; it’s more about the message and that’s why I think that nationwide, people have been so drawn to the story and have received it so well. Peter King has taken a huge interest in it and has been doing so much to help support 'Team Gleason.' So, it’s a fun thing to be a part of and it’s great because Steve is the perfect person to be able to tell that story.”
After concluding the interview with Scott, I managed to gain an even greater respect for him, not just as an NFL athlete but as a person as well.
I would like to thank Mr. Fujita for taking the time to talk to me for this interview and I would like to wish him the absolute best of luck in 2012 and beyond.
Ryan Michael is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report: Any questions, comments, or professional inquiries can be directed to his email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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