Scott Fujita knows all about what's possible in the NFL.
In 2006, against the advice of friends and loved ones, he chose to join a New Orleans Saints team coming off a 3-13 campaign and playing home games in a disaster-stricken city under a rookie coach.
Four years later, Fujita was starring in a commemorative video released this week chronicling the Saints' uplifting run to the first championship in the franchise's 43-year history.
I've always enjoyed the process of trying to turn teams around,'' Fujita said by phone from his offseason home near Monterey, Calif.We did that in New Orleans and I'm so excited about the opportunity to try to do that again.''
On Sunday, Fujita agreed to a three-year, $14 million free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns, with $8 million guaranteed.
Fujita, who'll be 31 next season, said he wasn't looking to leave New Orleans, a city for which he's repeatedly professed his affection.
Rather, he was courted by the Browns, who offered a generous contract, a more central role in their defense than he had in New Orleans - and the chance to be part of another uplifting story in a place that could use more of them.
It's obviously tough leaving because everyone knows how much we love New Orleans. ... My affection for the city will never change,'' Fujita said.Realistically, making this decision wasn't all that difficult because the Saints made the decision easy for me. They didn't put forth too much effort and I understand that completely.
They have a lot of young guys now that they need to start paying some money to and that's just part of the business,'' he continued.The Browns had a demand and I think they see a good role for me to come in and help turn that team around.''
For Fujita, New Orleans' recovery from Hurricane Katrina was something to experience rather than avoid. Even as he returns to grab some things from his residence in New Orleans' warehouse district in the next few weeks, he'll be continuing his community service efforts on behalf of the city. Fujita said he'll be donating half of his $83,000 player's share from the Super Bowl to two charities, one in Haiti and one in Louisiana that is dedicated to coastal restoration.
He also plans to appear in public service announcements promoting coastal restoration efforts, which are critical to south Louisiana's defense against tidal surges caused by hurricanes.
We love New Orleans whether we were going to be there or not, so we wanted to help any way we can to protect the city,'' Fujita said.We plan on keeping a home there, and when I'm there, I'm there to serve.''
Cleveland fans can look forward to Fujita taking a similar approach in their city.
Fujita is well aware of the economic hardship that has hit Cleveland and double-digit unemployment rates across much of Ohio.
I do know the city to a certain extent is suffering right now,'' Fujita said.Unemployment is really high and I know they're craving to have football be big again. You always hear about Cleveland fans. It's a storied franchise, a lot of championships back in the day. And they want great football again.''
In some ways, Fujita is coming into a situation in Cleveland that was more promising than the one he first joined in New Orleans. Although the Browns went 5-11 last season, they appeared to be moving in the right direction when they closed the season with four straight wins. When Mike Holmgren was hired as team president, he saw enough evidence of improvement to retain head coach Eric Mangini.
Fujita also has a history with Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who was a linebackers coach with the Patriots when Fujita entered the league in 2002. Fujita expected to be drafted by the Patriots, but Kansas City took him in the fifth round. While with Oakland in 2006, Ryan made another push for Fujita, who chose New Orleans instead.
``Now it's a chance for me to go and work with (Ryan), a guy I've respected for a long time,'' Fujita said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Fujita will be missed in New Orleans, where he was considered ``a great leader, a great locker room guy.''
``When we talk about our core guys, it was the guys there from that 2006 team,'' Brees said.
Fujita will miss out on the Saints' quest to repeat as champions. Instead, barring an unforeseen setback, he'll be lining up against Brees in the Louisiana Superdome when the Browns visit the Saints next season.
To not be a part of that repeat challenge, am I saddened by it? I kind of expected to be there and be able to help with that,'' Fujita said.But now I'm on to the same mission, which is to win a championship and try to bring that to Cleveland.''