Saint and the City: Fujita Finds Match in New Orleans
Saturday, January 20, 2007
METAIRIE, La., Jan. 19 -- Mt. Fujita towers six to eight inches, depending on how tightly it's wrapped, and is easily scaled by those with an empty stomach or sophisticated palate.
At Rock-N-Sake, a sushi bar in New Orleans's warehouse district, the edible homage to Saints linebacker Scott Fujita consists of crawfish and tuna rolls coupled with avocado sauce and is stacked like a pyramid. For the fifth-year journeyman linebacker who was traded by Kansas City and let go by Dallas without much of a free agent fight, the namesake dish and local cult-hero status is an honor offered with this disclaimer: "I don't want to get all sappy or anything, but . . ." Fujita said.
For all the stories about what the Saints, a traditional NFL punch line, have spiritually done for New Orleans, and for all the ones that will be written if the team beats the Bears in the NFC championship game Sunday in Chicago, Fujita's situation serves as a reminder that some players needed this place as much as it needed them.
Less than eight months after racking up a team-best 112 tackles for the Chiefs in 2004, management leaked word that Fujita was expendable in training camp. The team worked a trade to the Cowboys, for whom he started the last eight games of the 2005 season, but only because of injuries. Although the Cowboys offered him a contract before his deal expired last year, Fujita said the terms "declined" throughout the free agency period, leading him to look elsewhere -- even here, a franchise and community shrouded in uncertainty.
"It's kind of a reciprocal relationship," he said.
Presented with a nearly impossible sales job, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis provided a calculated tour of the city when Fujita visited in March. He didn't avoid sections devastated from Hurricane Katrina, but made sure to tour and talk up parts of town where water damage was minimal or nonexistent.
Of course, when the discussion turned to football (Loomis estimates talk was split 50-50 with all free agents between business and the living situation in New Orleans) the Saints sold Fujita on continuing his relationship with Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, who were brought over from Bill Parcells's staff in Dallas.
"We felt like not only is he a quality player," Loomis said, "but also that we had a chance to get him. . . . Sometimes in free agency you need to go after the guys you can get, not just go after anyone and everyone, particularly in our circumstance."
Fujita signed March 13, two days before quarterback Drew Brees signed, and was the eldest Saints starting linebacker when the regular season began. Linebacker Scott Shanle joined the team in late August from Dallas for an undisclosed draft pick. Seventh-year veteran Mark Simoneau was acquired a few days later in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for Donte Stallworth. Fujita eventually stood out from the no-name group thanks to the unintentional marketing genius of cornerback Mike McKenzie, who called Fujita the "Asian Assassin" on the Sept. 25 "Monday Night Football" lineup roll call. In that same game against the Atlanta Falcons, a national audience watched Fujita deliver a Samurai bow (a tribute to his adoptive father, Rod, who is of Japanese-American decent) after sacking Michael Vick.
He's bowed before, several times actually, but the move was never copied by Pop Warner linebackers around town. And he's never had a sushi roll named after him. And he says it was six weeks before he had to buy his own drink in New Orleans.
"And it has nothing to do with me being a Saint," Fujita said. "It was just people recognizing that I must have looked like an out-of-towner with my flip-flops, sandy hair and surfer's backpack. They must have thought, 'Man, we need to buy this guy a drink.'
"It was just a unique -- I don't want to call it a marriage -- but I felt like we just fit right in."
Nothing more than a sideshow to the Saints' big-tent offense, Fujita has directed a defense that -- statistically, anyway -- isn't substantially more accomplished than the 2005 unit, surrendering just five yards less per game than last year and totaling the same number of turnovers. Fujita's 96 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks weren't individual career highs, either.
Still, the injection of new players such as Fujita have produced several big-play moments, including stopping Philadelphia inside the 5-yard line last week and forcing a field goal with the score 27-21 and causing Coach Andy Reid to call for a punt on fourth and 15 with less than two minutes remaining.
"When I got here in free agency and a lot of the new coaches got here, I looked at it as kind of a fresh start for me in my career and a fresh start for the coaches," Fujita said. "But it was also a fresh start for the guys that were here in the past and wanted something new to come around, and something new to get emotional about and get excited about. So I don't want to forget about those guys at all, and I don't think everyone else should.
"We have been riding an emotional wave this whole year. But, you can't discredit [us], this is a damn good team that I'm playing on, too."