We were walking to lunch in the gritty but quaint warehouse section of New Orleans, the infamous Convention Center two blocks straight ahead, when Saints linebacker Scott Fujita began talking about the toughest person he had ever known. It wasn't Deuce McAllister, Joe Horn or even Mike McKenzie. Although we both thoroughly enjoyed how, during the grand reopening of the Superdome, McKenzie had introduced Fujita to the world on "Monday Night Football" as the "Asian Assassin."
Fujita wasn't talking about himself, either. He certainly qualifies, though. The leading tackler on the resurgent Saints defense, Fujita was given up by his birth mother when he was six weeks old and adopted by Helen and Rod Fujita of Oxnard, Calif. Helen is white. Rod, now a retired school teacher and coach, is a third-generation Japanese-American who was born inside a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during the post-Pearl Harbor paranoia of World War II.
Raised half-Japanese, Scott always celebrated traditional Shogatsu (Japanese New Year), and on May 5 Rod would raise a flag in the shape of a koi (ornamental carp) on a bamboo pole in his backyard in honor of the Japanese national holiday of Kodomo-no-hi (Children's Day). The most pleasantly shocking part of the Fujitas raising a green-eyed, blonde-haired chubby-cheeked boy as Japanese was that in Ventura County, Calif. no one seemed to give it a second thought. "American, Japanese, to me he's always just been my son," says Rod.
Scott walked on at Cal, came back from career-threatening neck surgery, made the all-Academic Pac-10 team and graduated with a degree in political science and a masters in education before the Chiefs selected him in the fifth round of the 2002 draft.
I wanted to know more about his neck surgery, about how the doctor punctured a vein in Scott's head while adjusting his halo and, without knowing it, ended up covered in blood when he went to speak to the family in post-op. Scott was fine, but his family was freaked out. "It looked like an oil spill," laughs Fujita.
But on this day, under a warm blue sky and on our way to a lunch of sushi (perhaps even the now very popular Mount Fujita roll), when Scott begins to talk about the strongest person he's ever known it is clear he is speaking more about inner strength. And, for him, no one personifies that trait quite like his regal grandma, Lillie Fujita.
It was 1941, a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Lillie was crossing the street in Berkeley and another female student ran up to her, screaming in her face: "You little Jap, why don't you go back home!" Lillie is a tiny, demure woman. At Scott's wedding reception he got down on his knees to dance with his grandma only to discover he was still too tall. But that day in 1941 she roared back: "I'm an American too and a better one than you are!"
Two months later President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066: the forcible evacuation of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to 10 internment camps. The Fujitas lost hundreds of acres of farmland in Ventura County when they were forced to relocate to army barracks in Gila River, Ariz.
Incredibly, Lillie's husband, Nagao Fujita, enlisted to fight for the very country that was imprisoning his family after he graduated from college. Deployed to Italy, he fought with the Japanese-American 442nd regiment, one of the most decorated battalions of the war. (In his wedding program, Scott dedicated the day to his grandfather, who went on to become one of the first bilingual attorneys on the West Coast. He died in 1987.)
Despite the clapboard barracks, intense heat and sandstorms, a pregnant Lillie tried to make the best of her imprisonment. She taught school while other internees developed an irrigation system to grow crops that they traded with the locals.
Yet when she speaks of the experience, no matter how hard you try or what buttons you push, you cannot detect a single hint of bitterness or anger in Lillie's voice. "We approached it like this: If we can't get out of this then we better try and make the most of it," Lillie says. "I got to teach right away and use my education. The truth is, if it wasn't for the evacuation I probably never would have left California."
Nearly five years later the U.S. government closed the last of the internment camps. Forty-two years later Lillie received a reparations check for $20,000 and a personal letter from George Bush.
Growing up, Scott was deeply affected by his family's internment and it still angers him that the subject was largely ignored by his teachers. To counter that he studied and wrote on the subject frequently when he was at Cal. "I'm so far removed from the topic, but when I think about it, it makes me bitter and angry," he says. "The thing is, I've never heard a single hint of negativity in my grandmother's voice. Part of the culture is to make the best of everything, to not feel sorry for yourself and to move on -- I'm honored to have been able to absorb that into my own life."
Scott chooses his words very carefully when speaking on the subject. With our polarized political climate, he has to. It's too bad, really. Because I can still remember a time, long before Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning, when athletes were actually encouraged -- no, expected -- to represent something other than just themselves and their corporate sponsors.
I get the feeling Fujita would like nothing more, but his main job is to tackle people -- he knows that. And the last thing he wants is to become a distraction to what the Saints are doing right now for the Gulf Coast. Heck, that's half the reason Fujita decided to sign here -- to be part of something bigger than himself. (A guy who shares his last name with the scale used to measure tornado intensity bringing relief to post-Katrina NOLA, imagine that.)
Still, God forbid an athlete today overachieving in the realm of social consciousness. "The value of telling my story is that the topic of Japanese internment will come up," he says. "It helps to educate people, especially in this day and age of heightened paranoia and fear. That kind of thing cannot happen again. There are things going on right now in this country that are just baffling. We may not be taking people and forcibly relocating them but there are many liberties that are being suspended right now. It's a delicate issue. Obviously we are at war and we all have to be smart and observant of our surroundings but at the same time any prejudice has to be unacceptable."
Fujita has the letters, government documents and black-and-white photos from his Japanese internment research on his computer desktop at home. There are posters informing all citizens of Japanese descent that they have six days to register with the government and report for evacuation.
The most poignant shot I saw was of a desolate barracks inside one of the camps, still proudly flying the American flag.
The photo leaves you speechless -- the whole notion of a country founded on principles of freedom, equality and civil liberties imprisoning its own citizens under the guise of patriotism. But what's truly unspeakable to someone like Lillie Fujita, someone who has earned the right to speak her mind on the topic, are the corollaries she sees to what's happening today and the idea that maybe we haven't evolved quite as much as we all think in the past 60 years.
"Anyone who was in a Japanese internment camp sees similarities to what is going on right now, we really do -- and it's hard to believe," says Lillie. "We were being accosted by fellow citizens and blamed for things we didn't do and I think American citizens from the Middle East are getting the exact same treatment today. You would think that we'd learn from the experience of Japanese internment, but we haven't done that I'm afraid."
Here, Lillie's soft voice trails off a bit.
"I guess, in the end, that's just human nature," she says.
I wait a long time before responding, trying to come up with a way to argue her point.
But I can't.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.