When the request arrived in an e-mail last fall, Scott Fujita replied immediately and without reservation. A friend had asked him his opinion. He answered. That was how Fujita looked at it.
The swiftness and certitude of Fujita’s reply stunned Dave Zirin, the friend who sent the e-mail. Zirin had not made a typical request, not for an NFL linebacker. He was looking for a professional athlete to lend his name to the National Equality March, a rally in Washington for gay rights.
On Sunday, Fujita will reach the pinnacle of his football career, playing linebacker for the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl. Fujita describes it as “this small moment in time where you have a platform to do some good things.’’ Last fall, that included speaking out in support of gay rights, a rare step in a professional sporting culture that often turns social stances into landmines.
Fujita, who is married, the father of twin daughters, and straight, pushes against the rising trend in sports to remain mum on cultural and political touchstones. His boldness, shaped by his unusual upbringing, makes him an uncommon and effective advocate for what he believes in.
“People asked me a question and I gave my opinion,’’ Fujita said. “People say, ‘That’s so courageous of you.’ To me, it’s not that courageous to have an opinion, especially if you wholeheartedly think it’s the right thing. For me, standing up for equal rights is the right thing to do.’’
Fujita’s show of support for gay rights began in the fall with Zirin, a Sirius radio show host, sports correspondent for The Nation magazine, and author of edgeofsports.com, a website dedicated to the intersection of sports and politics.
Before reaching out to Fujita, Zirin had e-mailed several dozen professional athletes asking them to endorse the march. Each one, even players Zirin knew supported it, declined to publicly stand behind it. “They didn’t want to go near this,’’ Zirin said. “It was too third-rail.’’
In his support of gay rights, Zirin wanted to tap into the sports world, which he said is often regarded as “the last hamlet of homophobia.’’
Zirin believed that dissolving that stereotype could empower the campaign.
Zirin had befriended Fujita while working with him on a column, and Fujita struck him as a man unafraid to speak his mind. He hoped Fujita would help but assumed he at least would waffle. But there was the e-mailed response: “Absolutely.’’
Now Zirin worried. Didn’t Fujita want to at least discuss the implications of an endorsement? Fujita told Zirin they could talk if he wanted, but nothing would change his mind.
“The only pressure that Scott feels,’’ Zirin said, “is the pressure to be true to his conscience.’’
Fujita was adopted by a third-generation Japanese-American man named Rodney and a Caucasian woman named Helen. He feels he owes his life to them. In some states, there have been laws proposed that would allow only married couples to adopt. This deeply bothered Fujita; he interpreted the proposals as an attempt to block foster children from being adopted into loving homes.
“To me, the right to marry is a right that all men should have,’’ Fujita said. “To me, it’s more a human issue than just a gay/straight/political issue.’’
On Oct. 6, Fujita outlined his position in an interview by Zirin posted on the Huffington Post. The piece pinballed around the Internet days before an estimated 200,000 people attended the National Equality March.
Zirin believed Fujita’s public stance - along with a column posted in April on the Huffington Post by Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo championing gay marriage - reached a swath of Americans who otherwise may have been unmoved.
“It’s important any time we have the ability to break free from stereotypes,’’ Zirin said. “You have to get your head around the idea that Scott is a bad-ass linebacker for the New Orleans Saints and that he speaks his mind in support of gay rights.’’
Football locker rooms are not generally considered hotbeds of progressive thought. But Fujita said players are “more tolerant than they get credit for. It’s not a big issue.’’
The absence of conflict owes partly to Fujita’s personality. He is one of the most respected leaders and well-liked people on the Saints.
“He’s flexible enough and he’s a good guy,’’ linebacker Scott Shanle said. “We all like when he brings out his opinions. Debates get started. You end up with two or three people in an argument, then you’ve got 10 to 20 people that are in an argument. It’s good just to get everyone together.’’
In 2006, Fujita left the Dallas Cowboys to play for the Saints. People asked him why. The Cowboys were a marquee NFL franchise. Devastation had engulfed New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Fujita chose New Orleans because he told himself, “This could be bigger than football.’’ Fujita wanted to help the ravaged city. He devotes time to adoption, breast cancer awareness (his mother is a two-time survivor), wetlands restoration, and other causes. This season, the Saints nominated him as their Walter Payton Man of the Year.
In 2007, Fujita started working with Covenant House, a shelter for homeless children aged 16 to 21 that also provides health clinics and various other services. Once every couple weeks, he drops off clothes and toys his 2-year-old daughters have outgrown. He visits with children and signs autographs in the cafeteria. Several of those kids have been failed by the foster care system.
“That is partly why Scott has taken us under his wing,’’ said Renee Blance, director of development at Covenant House. “I think he knows he could have been in their position if he had not been adopted by such a great family.’’
Fujita was born in 1979 to a teenaged mother who decided she did not have the means or the will to raise a son. She put him up for adoption, and Rodney and Helen Fujita adopted him when he was 6 months old. They ate rice with chopsticks and celebrated Japanese holidays. Fujita, who is white, embraced Japanese culture. From childhood, he considered himself Japanese.
“I have no Japanese blood in my body,’’ he said. “I have a Japanese heart.’’
In 1943, Nagao Fujita was fighting in Italy with the 442d Regimental Combat Team while his wife Lillie was living in an internment camp. While Nagao fought in World War II, Lillie gave birth to Rodney Fujita in the Arizona desert.
As he grew older, Scott Fujita asked his grandmother about her experience. Nagao died long ago, but Lillie is still alive, and Scott still speaks with her.
“I didn’t hear any sense of resentment at all in her voice,’’ Fujita said. “I never have. To be able to not just deal with it, but to become better from it, I always say, ‘What do I have to complain about?’ ’’
Fujita received a degree at Cal-Berkeley in political science and later earned a master’s in education. When he is done playing football, he plans on maintaining his platform. He wants to become a public school teacher, and he will still be a man who gives his opinion when he is asked.
“I know there’s a certain stigma that comes from being from Berkeley,’’ Fujita said. “And I’m proud of that stigma, to tell you the truth. I never claim to have all of the answers. I don’t know someone who does have all the answers. I just have opinions.’’