A conversation with Scott Fujita

The Browns linebacker talks about what has been a tumultuous and rewarding year

Scott Fujita has seen a good name he built for 11 years in the NFL sullied by the league associating him with the New Orleans Saints alleged bounty (i.e. pay to injure) program.

Fujita has fought a three-game suspension and made it clear he never gave money to injure another player.

His fight follows a lockout when he advocated new measures to improve player safety as a member of the NFL Players Association's Executive Board.

Through it all he has worked tirelessly for his friend Steve Gleason, a former Saint who was diagnosed with ALS in January of 2011. Gleason and Fujita know what Lou Gehrig's disease means. There is no cure, only hope that technology can make life more complete.

Gleason has fought the disease head-on. He started Team Gleason, a foundation that helps and campaigns for technological advances to benefit ALS patients. Fujita is an active member of the foundation's board and a devoted supporter of Gleason.

Fujita's spring included welcoming his third daughter in the world the day before the bounty scandal broke. His summer included escorting Gleason to a United Nations conference, where Gleason, in a wheelchair with Fujita sitting next to him, told an assembled crowd of experts on technology: “Save my voice, my lungs and my thumbs, and I promise to change the world."

His fall includes fighting the suspension.

And Fujita does it all knowing that brain trauma incurred while playing might have caused Gleason's ALS.

Fujita's story is one of personal conflict and personal commitment. More than anything, it's a story of one man's love for another.

Fujita sat down recently with Pat McManamon for a conversation about Team Gleason and the effect his friend – and the Saints situation -- has had on him.

Question: Can you express what Team Gleason means to you?

Answer: It's affected me on many levels. Steve is a good friend of mine who is faced with a terrible disease. When he got the diagnosis I knew what challenges lay ahead for him. I had an uncle who passed away from ALS about 16 years ago. So I've seen what my uncle went through. I saw what my aunt went through dealing with just the day-to-day of it.

So knowing what Steve was going to have to go through, knowing what his wife Michel was going to have to go through, it was a heavy, heavy thing to take in.

And also knowing that, whether you believe that football may have had something to do with this or not is up for debate, but there's a chance there. And this is what I do for a living.

So all those things felt like a lot of weight when he first announced that diagnosis to me, I think it was January of 2011.

I'm just happy to be a part of the ride though. Because the way Steve has attacked this diagnosis and has had such a positive outlook on everything … it's such an inspiration to me. It's an inspiration to everybody that comes into contact with it. But I'm glad that he feels close enough to me to bring me along for this ride.

Because it really is a ride. It's an adventure. And one of the things that he always says is that it's not going to be easy but it's going to be awesome.

And he lives his life every single day kind of following that mantra.

‘No white flags.'

‘Awesome ain't easy.'

And it's fun. It's fun watching the way he sharpens up too. As his physical abilities lessen, he gets sharper and sharper. It's fun to watch.

Q. Is that something you noticed with your uncle? Is that typical?

A. It's hard to say. Generally you hear about people who when they don't have their eyesight, their hearing is heightened. Things like that. With Steve, physically he is ailing. But he is much more articulate, even though he has trouble speaking. When he writes he can make the point that much clearer. He's such a dynamic personality. So …

Q. He's able to write?

A. He can use his thumbs, so he's texting and tweeting. He's got the ability to use his thumbs. He's still speaking to where you can understand him. We had a conference call the other day for the whole board and he sounded fantastic. We're gonna miss his voice. We all know what's coming. But I think he's prepared with the right equipment and technology to still make an impact.

Q. I apologize for the emotions; you might not need them at this point. But when you think about what he has to face and his attitude, to the untrained person it seems like it shouldn't jive.

A. Yeah. I think he just sees it as there being no other way. I don't think there's any way that someone can say that they defeated ALS. But I think that with the right equipment and the right support system and the right sense of purpose, then it's possible to not let ALS defeat you. And I think that's how he's approaching that kind of thing.

There are so many stories I could tell to show it.

A few months after his diagnosis, Steve and Michel, who had just learned she was pregnant, bought a camper van and began a 15,000 mile journey from New Orleans to Alaska, and back, with many stops and adventures along the way. That's how he chose to attack this challenge: Head on, and with the same sense of adventure he's always had. I thought that was awesome. He even rocked backstage at a Pearl Jam concert in Milwaukee on his return to New Orleans.

To ‘celebrate' the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis, he and a bunch of his friends and family jumped out of an airplane just outside New Orleans. Wish I could have joined them, but it wasn't long after I had my right hand re-built, so I opted out. Now I regret not going.

Q. There was a story that you and a friend climbed the highest hill near San Francisco after the diagnosis was given. Where you pledged you'd walk with him to the end of the earth. True?

A. Yeah. That was within a day or two of him getting his diagnosis. He was out there visiting his doctor and he got the diagnosis the first week of January 2011. I live about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, so he called and filled me in on what was going on.

We had had suspicions that that might be coming. He told me in October before the diagnosis that he was having some symptoms. We knew that ALS might be a possibility.

Some of the symptoms he was describing seemed familiar because of what my uncle went through. So I was worried about it, but until you actually hear it, have a 33-year-old and one of your best friends in the world tell you that … it was so surreal.

So that afternoon I called a friend of mine down in Los Angeles. He drove up immediately, picked me up. We drove up to San Francisco and then met with Steve and this healer up in San Francisco.

It was good. It was good to get connected at that moment. And I'm glad he had friends out there with him on the West Coast to help him absorb that information.

Q. I don't know him. I've heard about him. What kind of guy would you say he is?

A. He's a free spirit and -- I think this phrase gets overused -- he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He really is on his own program. He connects with everybody. I think you could say that about him long before this diagnosis came in. He just makes an impact on people.

When I first got to New Orleans back in 2006, I come in to start the offseason program. I'm this free agent who just came in. We're inside doing our workout in the weight room and there's a big window that looks out to the indoor fieldhouse. And Steve's up there against the wall doing these yoga poses and stuff.

I'm like … what's with the dude with the long hair out there. They were like, ‘Oh, that's Steve Gleason. He's on his own program.' I'm like, I think I can get into that guy.

So my wife and I bought a condo right downtown in New Orleans. Right in the thick of things, on the Mardi Gras parade route. About eight blocks from the Superdome. And Steve also kind of lived city center, right down in mid-city.

We just kind of connected because he had really embraced the culture. He fell in love with a local New Orleans girl. And my wife and I jumped into that culture too and just embraced it and had so much fun. Steve was kind of a good partner who showed me the ropes and taught me how much there is to love about the city of New Orleans.

Q. I would imagine a guy like that would be embraced by the city of New Orleans too. They like free spirits and individuals.

A. He really was.  He just does everything right too, and kind of fits that vibe. He embraced the city the way it was. He did so much in the aftermath of Katrina. He fell in love with a local girl for God's sake … that carries a lot of weight. And he had what's arguably the biggest play in the history of the New Orleans Saints. To me there's no one thing or one play that's more symbolic of the city's rebirth and recovery than that play.

Q. Why?

A. Historically the franchise had not been successful. Everybody knows that. It was kind of the laughing stock of the league for a long time. Then for a city in the whole Gulf south after Hurricane Katrina … there was a sense outside of New Orleans that there's no way this place ever comes back. There was talk of the team even moving. But the city from the ground up just kind of rose up in 2006 …

I don't want to overstate the impact that football can have on a movement like that, but you could just feel the energy in that building when Steve blocked the punt. It was just like a weight had been lifted.

We didn't even know if that game was going to be played that night. Literally the paint was still drying on the Superdome when we came in to play. It was like they had to get everything ready to go on an expedited basis. We were there for kind of a jog-through practice on Friday, just so we could get into the Dome for the first time after they had just patched up the roof and everything.

Q. They delayed the home opener too right?

A. Right. Our preseason we didn't get to play in the Superdome. We had to play elsewhere because they were just finishing up.

Q. Did they ever tell you the team was going to move to San Antonio?

A. I think those were just rumors. When I got there they were pretty much locked in. When I was there on my free agent visit the New Orleans Saints practice facility was kind of the FEMA headquarters. Helicopters all over the place, stuff out on the practice field. People thought my wife and I were nuts for even considering the visit.

But that play was so symbolic and emblematic of the aftermath and rebirth. And the statue (of Gleason)… it's called ‘The Rebirth' … that they put outside the Superdome. To me it's perfect.

Q. Could you have picked a better guy on that team to make that play?

A. No. No doubt about it. He was the guy. And people joke with me all the time because the play right before it was third down and three or four. We were in nickel defense. ( Mike) Vick runs a little boot. I come up, sack-forced fumble.

Luckily they recovered the fumble. Because if we had recovered it there would have been no punt set up for Steve to block. One of the guys down in New Orleans always busts my chops about it, says you almost ruined the biggest play in New Orleans Saints history.

Q. Instead you set it up. How much time do you spend working with the Board, with Team Gleason?

A. I think it depends on the activity. Our board is very well diversified. You have a whole group of people with a whole different array of skill sets. So depending on what's coming up or what activities are planned, depending on time of year, we try to talk once or twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Because they're trying to accommodate my schedule because my schedule is kind of erratic.

But we'll talk through what's up next, what we need from everybody. For instance, in the offseason we had the UN Technology Summit, the Social Innovation Summit, which was outstanding.

An invite came in for Steve to attend. It happened at a time where I was more or less available. I think we had an OTA that day. Steve said he'd be willing to go but he wanted me to come with him to kind of help him through the presentation.

I said absolutely, I can't miss out on an opportunity like this.

It was good. It was good to get Steve in front of everybody, some of the brightest minds in the world, and kind of see what Steve has to offer the world, but also what he needs and people like him need. It was almost a challenge. Some of these people are just incredibly, incredibly bright. It was a very positive day for us.

Q. Was that as special as it seems. I'm thinking to myself as I looked at pictures that you guys got to appear at the United Nations.

A. It really was. He and I both, we embrace things like that. And we understand how big that was. It was a moment for him, again, to get in front of all these bright minds and to say, ‘Listen, this is my situation.' They see him wheel up in this chair. And to be able to say throughout the course of the history of ALS, dating back to Lou Gehrig, the medical advances in this field are very minimal. But technological advances are exponential. And that was kind of our mantra, and kind of appealing to this crowd that that's where we need help. That is the key to survival right now, technology and getting people the right kind of equipment.

Right now Team Gleason is building the world's second ALS residence down in New Orleans and fund-raising for it. It's a fully automated home where ALS residents can live and be completely independent.

The other is in Boston. There's an ALS patient in Boston named Steve Saling that Steve Gleason got connected with. They took a visit up there, toured it and it's just fantastic. The response has been great. Peter King (of Sports Illustrated) has been raising a lot of money for it. Peter's been a stud helping out with everything. And we were able to raise a lot of money in the UN, discussing that, and everybody just was drawn to it.

Q. Can you tell me something interesting, funny that Steve has told you recently?

A. He's got a great sense of humor. He's the kind of guy when things get kind of awkward or hard or depressing, he always finds a way to make a joke to kind of lighten the mood. This might not work for you, but he told a story to this ESPN guy who wrote a story on me a few weeks back when we went on this hike.

We were up there and we were drinking this Chinese hot tea, and I'm kind of the tea virgin. I drink it occasionally. But Steve and my buddy Eric Johnson -- who did an apprenticeship with this master Wang in China -- these guys are well-groomed tea drinkers.

First of all my lips and tongue are getting burned. They're drinking this stuff like it's shots. I'm going to the bathroom like crazy. Well I go over and I'm standing on this ledge going into the fog down this bluff. And Master Wang, this Chinese healer, he says, “That means you have weak penis.' I'm like, great.

Steve, he and his wife, they still bust my chops about it every time he sees me. I'm still trying to live that reputation down.

He always finds a way to lighten the mood. Any time when I call and things seem kind of serious, he just has the kind of personality where he can set everybody at ease. And say something that makes you all have a laugh.

Q. When I look at your experience with the NFLPA, your work with Team Gleason which I think people know about but don't understand the magnitude of the effort … then you have a baby. Then you have all the other stuff with the Saints and the bounty. Have you ever taken a step back and said, holy smokes this is a lot of stuff going on?

A. Yeah. There's been a lot on my plate. The last couple years, really. From the lockout, which was an interesting time, and then coming back in 2011 and getting Steve's diagnosis and working our way through that and getting Team Gleason kind of kicked off, and the momentum of it has been a great thing to be a part of.

And a baby.

And then all the other nonsense that I'm dealing with.

It's been a lot. But watching the way Steve has handled what he's dealing with is kind of a good reminder for me on the day-to-day to keep things in perspective. It's hard, sometimes when moments get hard and you think is this thing (the bounty situation) ever going to end?

But in the grand scheme, it's really not that big of a big deal. Yeah my reputation has taken a hit. Whatever. People who know me, understand me, are going to stand by me. They know the real deal. They're not going to pay attention to ESPN sound bites. So I got to keep things in perspective the best I can, and Steve has helped with that.

Q. You have mentioned that football could have caused his ALS. Do you struggle with that?

A. I'd be lying if I said it didn't weigh on me at times. Statistics show that there's an increased likelihood for NFL players to develop ALS. Factually, do we know if that's for certain or not? We don't know. But that's what the stats show at this point. So we can't disregard that.

But again, there are more and more people being diagnosed who never played football or any kind of contact sport. So it's important to keep that in mind.

I think the way Steve says it is perfect. He says, ‘Yeah, certainly football is part of the conversation, but it's not the headline.'

For him, the headline, the point, is to help ALS patients live more meaningful, impactful lives. And I don't want to say to choose survival, but to be able to equip them with the proper support and technology to not only survive, but actually thrive in the process.

Q. I don't know how much you want to get into certain stuff, but the story of the Gregg Williams tape and you guys being in the room seemed really remarkable, that Steve would have to sit and listen to some of that stuff. I know what you say about football and inappropriate things being said, but it seemed like it might have been a difficult moment.

A. Yeah, I don't want to get into it too much, but I think when we were in that room –and I think Steve would probably say the same thing – I've listened to hundreds of different variations of the same exact speech. So when you're in that setting in that context it doesn't strike you that way so much.

I remember being in that room, and here I am with my dear friend who's in a wheelchair and thinking, ‘God I can't believe people are still talking like that.' I did think that.

But I also thought it's not that big a deal and none of the players were treating it like it was that big of a deal. It wasn't until I was a few months removed from that when I heard the audio for the first time removed from that setting, when I was at home with my wife and my daughter … that's when I could see myself sitting next to Steve where there was more of a real-world aspect to it.

It wasn't just trying to get a bunch of guys ready to play a game. It hit me more deeply that when I was sitting in a room.

Q. Is it more of a cultural problem in terms of how football looks at things?

A. Yeah, more of a (football) cultural issue. And again, players don't take that kind of stuff seriously.

I've had coaches who trained us who literally trained us to choke guys until (stuff) runs down their leg. Coaches say over-the-top things all the time.

It's wrong, especially with a heightened sense of awareness with everything. But the point is that players generally don't take that kind of thing seriously.

Q. Do you feel conflicted? Is it tough to go out and play? You see the kid at Tulane now who broke a vertebra in his neck.

A. Yeah, I got to admit. It's tough. You go through certain things, life to lockout. And you see that the care for the players that you see on ESPN and everything else might not be all it's cracked up to be. I mean, let's be honest. You see things behind the scenes that make you question things. So you come back from that and you're kind of in battle mode, and we're in this labor standoff.

But then they flip a switch and it's right back to playing football. Then getting Steve's diagnosis. Then having a concussion last year. You go through all these things, and if you take a snapshot of the game at any one of those given moments it can really sour your opinion about the game in general.

But now that I'm through all that and I've been dealing with so much stuff the last couple months, really now I enjoy it more than I have in years. A lot of people are surprised when I say that, but this is a place where it's just a game.

I enjoy it now so much because it's a distraction from all those kinds of things. The OTAs this year, I enjoyed OTAs more than I ever have. This was the most fun I've ever had at training camp.

Q. Most veterans would not say that kind of thing.

A. Yeah. And it's interesting. If you probably asked my teammates, I think they would say the same thing, that I appear to be having more fun than I have in a long time. And I think it's because there's been a lot of crap I've dealt with and this is like recess. And I'm really treating it that way.

Q. For you personally, you have mentioned your reputation has taken a hit. A lot of people, me included, have written things about you that based on what we were told did not sound good. All of a sudden here is this guy who has never been known as a dirty player involved in something that sounds really distasteful. Yet in the background you're doing this for Steve, and I know you've done stuff in the community everywhere you've been. Do you worry about your reputation? Do you worry about what people are looking at and reading?

A. I think for a while I did. This offseason there were moments where … I don't want to call them dark days … but it weighed a lot more heavily on me than it does now. I'm to the point now where I can't control everybody's opinion of me. It's beyond that.

ESPN, everything else, it's a headline-sound bite culture. And it's hard to compete with that. I'm just going to keep doing good things. I'm going to keep living my life the way I do. And over time I hope that this is just a blip on the radar.

There were moments where I thought, oh my gosh, I'm never going to get past this. But let's be real about it, this is very small in the grand scheme.

Q. And when your third daughter was born you were able to put it aside and enjoy the moment?

A. I was, and even that was hard. The news (about the Saints) came at a time where she was just born. It came the day after she was born and we were still in the hospital. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you kidding me, timing wise?'

But … there's only so much I can control. I'm still going to keep having fun and being positive.

And the guys here have been so supportive. All the guys want T-Shirts and stuff. So I ordered everybody Team Gleason shirts. All the guys are drawn to Steve.

There's a chance he's coming to Cleveland.

Q. Of one message you want to get across for Steve on his behalf, and his foundation, what would it be?

A. I don't want to just say ‘no white flags,' but Steve is the one who coined that phrase and attached it to the foundation.

It's letting people know that there are support systems in place. When Steve's diagnosis first came in, I called my cousin who lost his Dad to ALS. He and I spoke about it and one of the things that he told me was make sure that Steve is proactive in knowing what's next, and taking advantage of the resources and the support technologies that are available to him.

He said his father was an old-school throwback type. He really didn't want to know what was going to be next, he didn't want the assistance that was available to him. That made the remaining days challenging. My cousin felt like it didn't have to be like that.

I relayed that message to Steve immediately, and I don't know if that helped sway Steve or not because he's kind of a guy who's going to take things proactively anyway. But Steve has taken that approach. He's been extremely proactive.

The message to other ALS patients and to other people who have similar muscular-neuro degenerative diseases is that there are support systems in place, you can take advantage of them. That really is kind of the pinnacle, or the cornerstone, of Team Gleason.

It's to help do everything you can to provide that type of support for patients who need it. And also to give them a sense of purpose and the adventure that they've been craving and to be able to fund these adventurous trips. To go scale a mountain, or to go to the Super Bowl and meet a bunch of players, or to go on a canoe trip down a river in Idaho.

We're talking adventure, fun stuff.

Jumping out of an airplane with ALS. Stuff like that.

That's the way Steve has always lived his life, and his opinion is, why stop now.


For more information about Steve Gleason and Team Gleason, go to www.teamgleason.org.

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