More than any person,
Vilma returned to practice with his teammates Monday, after having arthroscopic surgery in mid-August and being placed on injured reserve with a designation to return. The three-time Pro Bowler and four-time defensive team captain missed five games last season while on the Physically Unable to Perform list, as he rehabilitated from knee surgery.
“Felt good,” Vilma said of his first practice since training camp. “I was pleasantly surprised by my conditioning, by the way my knee held up. I was very optimistic about it.
“I thought that I practiced well (Monday), coaches said I looked good when I was running around. The big thing is now, after two or three or four days of practice, how’s it going to hold up? We’ll see how it holds up after that.”
The Saints' defense has played well in Vilma’s absence, allowing 17.2 points (fourth-fewest in the league) and 338 yards per game, while posting eight interceptions and 20 sacks.
But Vilma, who was slated to be a starter, still feels he has much to offer. Last season he had 49 tackles, a sack, an interception returned for a touchdown and three passes defensed in 11 games.
“I still love to play,” he said. “I still think I’m capable of playing and it’ll really be my knee telling me yes or no, after five days of practice, after a week of practice, two weeks before a game, see how I feel. If I’m still good to go then, great, (I’ll go) 100 mph. If not, it is what it is.”
Vilma said the knee felt fine throughout the offseason and the beginning of training camp. He injured it during the Black and Gold scrimmage and soon after, had surgery.
“Just a little something awkward happened in the scrimmage and as soon as the next day came around and my knee swelled up, I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I was fine up until that point and unfortunately, had to get the surgery and now, I’m back to feeling the way I was before. I was feeling very good before (the swelling and surgery).”
Right now, Vilma said, his knee is saying all the right things. But if it becomes disagreeable, he said he’ll give an honest assessment of the situation and face reality.
“If my knee says, ‘No,’ I told (Coach) Sean (Payton), ‘I’ll be honest and let you know. My knee is saying No More. No Mas,’ ” he said. “And we’ll go from there.
“I’m assuming I’d be put on injured reserve and go from there. But fortunately, right now, it’s not telling me that and as long as it’s not telling me that, I’m 100 mph.
“It’s tough to think about (not playing) but it’s also reality. It’s not the end of the world. You just move on.
“I kind of look at things that are going on. You look at a lot of the older guys, I’m saying 50 years old … I want to be able to walk and enjoy the rest of my life and enjoy the fruits of my labor. It’s something that I have to be very realistic about, not just the short future but when I’m 50, 60 years old.”
Part of that future, short- and long-term, is Vilma’s involvement with building schools in Haiti. To that end, he’s teaming with Morton’s The Steakhouse to host the fourth Annual Celebrity Servers Dinner on Nov. 11, at 6 p.m.
Vilma, who is of Haitian heritage, established the Jonathan Vilma Foundation to support the building of the schools. His parents emigrated from Haiti and family members remain in the country.
In 2010, a 7.0 earthquake struck the region, killing more than 230,000 people, including 40,000 students and 1,000 teachers. More than 50 schools were destroyed.
“It only caters toward Haiti,” he said of the foundation. “I’m actually on my third school, with the help of Artists For Peace and Justice. We’ve built an infrastructure. We’re doing a lot of good things.
“It’s a slow process but fortunately, I can go down and look and see that the money that everyone is bringing in for my foundation goes toward a good cause.”
Vilma said that the foundation has raised more than $400,000.
“I’m able to go once a year to check on the progress,” he said. “After the season, I try to get down right before OTAs. Hopefully, I can get down there two, three times a year after I’m done with football.
“I almost feel it’s a necessity to give back.”