Sept. 26, 2001
BERKELEY, CALIF.--Stop me if you've heard this one.
Our hero is undersized, undervalued and outmatched. Said hero finds somebody to take a chance on him, and makes good. He works hard, and eventually moves his way up from the bottom. He earns the respect of those around him, and soon our hero outlasts everyone and makes it to the top.
Sounds like a Disney movie, right? "I'm a big Disney guy," says the 255-pound linebacker.
Scott Fujita, California native, likes movies. His favorite alternates between Braveheart and Gladiator, with the Lion King receiving the honorable mention. "I'm kind of a movie freak, actually." Fujita estimates that he owns about 415 movies, both VHS and DVD.
Oh, and by the way: he's one highlight reel away from having Paul Tagliabue call out his name on a certain Saturday in April in a certain building in New York City. Note to all of those not paying attention: the storybook ending of Scott Fujita, the early years. Join us next summer at the premier of the sequel. Hakunamatata, Scott.
But that's now. Lets start at the beginning.
No. 49 entered high school at 5'7", 120 lbs. "I was kind of a late bloomer in high school and went straight up like a bean pole," Fujita says. Flash forward three years. The late bloomer stood at 6'4 and a shade over 200 pounds notched 118 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions in his senior season. He also played basketball, winning the halftime slam-dunk contest in the Ventura County all-star game in his senior season.
In a day and age when Randy Moss plays point guard and Deion Sanders plays minor league baseball, why was this two-sport star overlooked when it came time to hand out the rides? Fujita has an idea. "When I was coming out of high school, one of the main reasons a lot of people turned away from me was that I was what they called a tweener, in between body sizes, and positions too."
Remember Jevon Kearse? He's a tweener too.
Now, it's not like our hero was without options. He could have taken one of several academic scholarships, some offered from the Ivy League. His football options were limited, and he actually came close to signing on with a Division III school. But that's when California called. The school offered the total package for Fujita: academic reputation and Division I football.
He redshirted in 1997, adding 20 pounds to his frame and switching to linebacker. Having impressed his coaches and teammates as strictly a special teams player his first year, Fujita was offered a scholarship in the offseason. The next year, he saw his first start against UCLA, recording four tackles in that game and 11 for the year. By the time the season was over, Fujita looked less like the tweener of old, and more like a linebacker, standing 6'5" and carrying 230 pounds.
And he lived happily ever after?
Not so fast. This story has a twist.
The more Fujita played, the more he began to be bothered by what are called "stingers," which result in numbness in the arm and shoulder. This particular malady is usually limited to contact sports, and is usually not a serious injury. Fujita, however, began to suffer them when he turned over in his sleep, or when he simply looked around.
In the season when our hero had completed his rise to the starting team, he had to sit out practice the final five weeks of the season, playing only on game-days. Following a consultation with the Cal medical staff, it was discovered that Fujita had a condition in which four nerve roots in his spine were too narrow, causing the bone to pinch the nerves each time he turned his head or absorbed a hit.
The solution? Neck surgery.
A frightening prospect, but especially to a 21-year old football player. The doctor didn't guarantee that Fujita would be able to play football, but "he pretty much guaranteed me I'd be ready for everyday life. That was the goal," Fujita said prior to last season to the Daily Californian.
William Wallace would have been proud. Not only did our hero recover, but he got better. He received the Cal Player of the Week honor in his third game back, against Fresno State, helping to muzzle the Bulldogs to a mere 2.1 yards per carry. For the season he racked up 41 tackles in Lyle Setencich's defense. Thirteen of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. His performance also earned him All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention.
On the academic side, Fujita was named to the Pac-10 All Academic first team, finishing with a 3.4 GPA in political science. He was also awarded the District VIII All-Academic award. He graduated in May, and is currently working on his masters degree in education, and is considering law school or pursuing an MBA.
"In my five years at Cal," said Bears' head coach Tom Holmoe, "Scott Fujita is probably the best story about how it should work for a student-athlete. He's the best player on our team. He's a leader, the kind of player that every coach would love to have on his team."
A weekly Japanese-language magazine in Los Angeles, "Rafu Shimpo," covers Fujita's remarkable football career each year with interest. Most likely of Irish and German descent, Fujita was adopted by Rod and Helen Fujita when he was six months old. His father is of Japanese ancestry, while his mother is white.
"A lot of people assume I'm Japanese," said Fujita. I grew up on rice. I never had a baked potato until I was nine. I'm American, but I'm half Japanese at heart."
As an eight-year-old running back, Fujita began his football career with the Camarillo Roadrunners youth team. He was joined by another future college star on that youth team in Joe Bouchard, who went on to play quarterback Stanford and become the No. 1 baseball draft pick of the Chicago White Sox.
Fujita has since grown up into a linebacker, a far cry from the bean pole his freshman year of high school. Yet, despite all he's done, he has yet to garner national recognition. He has, as a point of fact, only started for one full season at Cal. Setencich raved about our hero's spring performance and hinted that No. 49 might evolve into a top-32 pick next April. Mel Kiper, an analyst for ESPN, believes that "Fujita should emerge as a top-drawer linebacker in the Pac-10....With his physical skills, he could be the complete package." So this feel-good story could have a feel-great ending.
But you've already heard that one, right?