D'Qwell Jackson turned and looked at the empty chair in front of Scott Fujita's locker, where his good friend and teammate would normally be sitting after practice.
Fujita wasn't there. He might be gone for good.
The forthright Fujita, one of the league's most informed players, will be placed on injured reserve with a neck injury, ending his stormy season — and perhaps his football career.
One of four players suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, Fujita was inactive for Cleveland's past two games. He last started on Oct. 7 against the New York Giants in what may have been his final game as a pro.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur spoke with Fujita before practice, but he does not know if the 11-year veteran will retire.
At the very least, Fujita's season is over.
"It's tough, man," said Jackson, who started at linebacker alongside Fujita. "Just having him around the building, his personality and the guy that he is, it's a loss for all of us."
The 33-year-old Fujita underwent neck surgery in college. Jackson said one of his closest friends is having to contemplate not playing again.
"Anytime you get to that point of your career, ideally everyone in this locker room, we're all taking notes, we want to retire and not because of injury," Jackson said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."
Fujita was not available for interviews. He was at the team's facility earlier in the day, but had left by the time the locker room was open to reporters. The Browns have not officially made a roster move with Fujita, but Shurmur said it will happen.
Fujita's season has been marred by injuries and the suspension. He has always maintained his innocence from the pay-for-hits program and Goodell recently reduced Fujita's three-game suspension to one. However, Fujita was angered by a letter he received from the commissioner and harshly criticized Goodell for "abuse of power" in handling the Saints' situation. Fujita also questioned the commissioner's track record on player safety, saying he has done more to help his peers through his activities as an executive council member for the NFL Players' Association.
It's not yet known if Fujita will continue to fight to clear his name.
Jackson said Fujita was able to block out the distractions, but it wasn't easy.
"He's a strong-willed guy and you would never know he had so much going on," Jackson said. "He was the same guy, but you know at some point it had to affect him and his household. And for this happen, it's another setback."
Fujita signed with the Browns as a free agent in 2010 after spending four seasons with the Saints. He played just 23 of a possible 39 games with the Browns because of injuries.
He's highly respected in the locker room and on the field, and the Browns will miss Fujita's leadership. However, Fujita was not part of Cleveland's long-term plans as the team has been immersed in a youth movement this season.
Jackson said he learned from Fujita.
"He has a system in the way he does things," Jackson said. "He's here in the morning early, he sticks to it and he's a pro's pro. And for him to do it for so many years. You sit back and watch the way he plays and when he's around, he enjoys being here."
With Fujita sidelined, rookie James-Michael Johnson will likely start at strongside linebacker on Sunday against San Diego. Johnson has started Cleveland's past two games, recording three tackles.
Shurmur said losing Fujita's savvy and knowledge hurts, and that Johnson and rookie L.J. Fort will need to step up.
"Just from a roster standpoint, we got younger guys playing those positions and when you got a guy who has experience there's things that he can add to the mix," Shurmur said. "On the other side of it some of the youth and enthusiasm and fresher legs add another little dimension."
If Fujita retires, Jackson knows his teammate will be successful in whatever he chooses to do next. Fujita has been active in many social causes, including raising awareness for former Saints teammate Steve Gleason, who is afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
"Whatever he decides to get into after football, I'll be right there beside him," Jackson said. "He's interesting, man. He's going to fight the fight no matter what."
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