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Fujita returns to Browns after suspension lifted

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Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita signs autographs for fans before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, in Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita signs autographs for fans before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, in Cleveland.

Tony Dejak, Associated Press

BEREA, Ohio — Back where he belonged, Scott Fujita ran free.

Disentangled, for the moment, from a legal straitjacket threatening his reputation and career, the Browns linebacker practiced without worry Wednesday. His three-game suspension overturned, but his legal fight not yet over, Fujita was again around teammates who never doubted him — and who missed him.

"We felt his presence," safety T.J. Ward said. "He was out there making a lot of noise, running around like he was a rookie, making jokes. It's really good to have him back."

Fujita practiced for the first time since an appeals panel renounced a three-game NFL suspension he received for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal. The 33-year-old Fujita played from 2006-09 for New Orleans.

The outspoken Fujita, who has maintained that he never contributed money to a pay-for-pain pool, plans to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss his case. Fujita would not discuss any details of the upcoming meeting, which will probably take place next week, but he believes a resolution is approaching.

"I'm always an upbeat, glass-half-full kind of guy," he said. "I feel good about it. When and where, I don't know yet. I've just got to let the process run its course."

Fujita began serving his suspension last week. He was barred from the Browns' facility, forcing him to work out at nearby Baldwin Wallace University, where he could hear the whistle tweets from Cleveland's coaches during practice. He hoped all along he would be eligible to play in Week 1, and on Friday his suspension, along with penalties against Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and free agent Anthony Hargrove, were overturned.

But while the ruling went in Fujita's favor, it came too late for him to show coach Pat Shurmur he was fully recovered from a leg injury that kept him out of Cleveland's last three preseason games. He didn't play in Sunday's season opener at home against Philadelphia.

"If that decision came six or seven hours sooner, I could have gotten on the field and shown that everything was fine," Fujita said. "Then it's a different story."

Goodell, whose authority to punish the suspended players was questioned by the panel, wants to meet with Fujita and the others "as soon as possible."

Fujita would welcome an ending to this lengthy ordeal, which has affected his family, livelihood and given the league a potentially permanent black eye.

"I really am," he said of a possible conclusion. "We don't know what's ahead or what's coming down the road. From the very beginning I felt optimistic. I knew it was a process. Obviously, I wish it could have been resolved a while back, so it's not a distraction for anybody, but I've got to block all that out and just focus on the Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday's opponent). That's the best thing I can do at this point, control what I can control."

Shurmur would not commit to Fujita moving back into the starting lineup. However, with a young linebacking corps, the Browns can't afford to be without Fujita's experience and he'll likely line up at the strongside spot next to D'Qwell Jackson, who was thrilled to have his sidekick back.

"It's definitely a comfort zone," Jackson said. "The guy has been through a lot, and to have him back out here and focused on football and not have to worry about outside distractions means the world to us."

Fujita's return comes at a great time for the Browns, who will be without cornerback Joe Haden for the next four games.

Haden was suspended Monday for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He won't be eligible to return until Oct. 8, and with two division games, three on the road and a matchup with the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants between now and then, the Browns have their hands full.

"Joe's a hard guy to replace," Fujita said. "It's going to be tough on him and tough on us. We have to have guys step up and rise to the occasion."

To a man, Fujita's teammates believe he has done just that during months of intense scrutiny since the Saints' scandal first became public.

To some, the former Saint is a sinner.

And while others question him, Fujita has remained resolute. He hasn't wavered or weakened.

The scandal's weight hasn't flattened him.

"This is a national and worldwide issue," Browns tight end Ben Watson said. "It's something that has grown and grown, and he's always maintained his innocence. His story has never changed. He's always been forthright and honest with everything that he could be honest with as far as the facts go.

"He has a wife, kids, a mom and dad and his family has had to live with this whole thing. I don't want to speak for him, but I would imagine that's been the hardest thing as this thing has dragged on. There have been accusations and shots to his reputation. He's handled it very well, probably better than I would. He came to work every day, he's stood up against it and fought as good as he could."

NOTES: Browns QB Brandon Weeden took responsibility for his dreadful performance — 12 of 35, four interceptions — in the opener. Weeden watched three replays of the loss to Philadelphia, but has stayed away from watching highlights on TV, listening to talk radio or looking at Twitter. "I know I played bad," he said. "I don't need the nation to tell me how bad I played." ... Browns rookie RB Trent Richardson said his left knee responded fine after the opener. He had knee surgery on Aug. 9. "I've had no problem with it," he said before joking. "If you want to go outside, I'll race you now." ... Incoming Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III has stepped down as CEO from his Pilot Flying J truck stop empire. Haslam's purchase of the Browns for $1 billion is expected to be approved next month.