This weekend, when Japanese Americans tune in to watch the nation’s biggest televised sporting event, many of them will do a double take. They’ll see a New Orleans Saints linebacker dart across the screen, read the name printed above the number 55 on his jersey, and marvel to themselves, “Fujita? I didn’t know a Nikkei was going to be in the Super Bowl.”
Others in the community, however, will nod knowingly. Because while Scott Fujita has never received this level of exposure before, his one-of-a-kind story has already turned many heads throughout his career. Football fans in Dallas and Kansas City became acquainted with him during stints with the Cowboys and the Chiefs a few years back. Alums of the University of California, Berkeley might remember him debuting as a walk-on and then landing a scholarship with the Golden Bears. Classmates from Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, Calif., probably recall his exploits both on the turf and on the hardwood.
In all the places he has donned a uniform, the story invariably gets told, because once he takes off his helmet, most spectators have difficulty reconciling how the man with the Japanese name has a white face.
The answer is quite simple. At six weeks of age, Scott was given up by his birth mother and adopted by Rod and Helen Fujita. Helen, a retired secretary, is Caucasian; her husband Rod, a retired teacher, is a Sansei. They raised both of their adopted sons with an appreciation for Japanese culture, celebrating oshogatsu and kodomo no hi, and piling on the rice at mealtime. Meanwhile, Scott’s adopted grandparents, Lillie and Nagao, regaled him with the wondrous history of Japan and also revealed their own pasts — wondrous in a different way — of facing up to fear and hatred during World War II. The couple was incarcerated at Gila River, and Nagao later fought for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy.
The examples provided by his family, especially his grandparents, clearly made an impression on Fujita. Besides showing the toughness and resilience to excel in an incredibly demanding profession, he has tackled other challenges off the field, too. One of the key free agent signings for the Saints in the season following Hurricane Katrina, Fujita has embraced the hard-luck city he plays for. He and his wife Jaclyn have been involved with Angel’s Place, a facility that supports children with life-threatening illnesses, and with Crimestoppers of New Orleans, as well as championing both adoption (for obvious reasons) and breast cancer awareness. (Helen has twice fought off the disease.)
The father of twin girls also recently took a stand for gay rights, backing the Oct. 11 National Equality March for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights in Washington D.C. As he told sportswriter Dave Zirin in a Huffington Post interview on the subject, “One thing I am most intolerant of is intolerance. That’s the one thing, you want to get under my skin, to start talking about some intolerant stuff, and I’m quick to talk about it.”
At the close of 2009, in recognition of his various efforts, the Saints named Fujita their Man of the Year, an award bestowed by each NFL franchise upon one of its players acknowledging his value to team and community.
Just as it has been whenever he sets foot on the field, much of this background will likely be shared on Super Bowl Sunday — if not for the inspirational narrative, then merely to reduce confusion about names and expectations. And once those Japanese Americans who never heard of Scott Fujita learn about the man, they may decide this year’s Super Bowl does not feature a Nikkei after all. But perhaps they should reconsider. For as Fujita explained to ESPN the Magazine’s David Fleming, “I know I don’t have a drop of Japanese blood in me. But what is race? It’s just a label. The way you’re raised, your family, the people you love — that means more than everything else.”