WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. - The past week has been extremely emotional for New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and it has nothing to do with being one win away from playing in the Super Bowl.
Vilma is one of 16 NFL players with ties to Haiti, a country that is reeling from death and destruction caused by a massive, 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12.
Vilma’s parents were born in Haiti, but came to the United State more than 30 years ago. His two aunts and uncles still live in the impoverished Caribbean nation, where they are trying to put their lives back together amidst the rubble.
“Fortunately, my family's safe and everything is fine,” Vilma told WDSU-TV in New Orleans, La. "It’s tragic, what happened. The best thing I've seen or heard or read about is that everyone's really trying to come and help.”
A first-generation American, Vilma – whose Saints (14-3) host the Minnesota Vikings (13-4) in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon – plans on working with the NFL to raise funds for relief efforts in Haiti. The NFL and the NFL Players Association already have pledged US$2.5 million to the rebuilding the ravaged country.
Vilma also has designed a Saints T-shirt with a portion of the proceeds going toward helping earthquake victims. Vilma, however, said the team’s impending game, which is regarded as one of the biggest in the team’s history, has prevented him from channeling more energy in helping Haiti.
“I don't want to just hand money over to anybody," Vilma said WDSU-TV. “I want to make sure it goes to where the help really needs to be, so after this game I'm really going to take some time to understand where I can help and do whatever I can."
Vilma, who made 110 tackles and two sacks this year, is just one of the thousands of Americans who spent parts of last week staring at the tragedy that unfolded in Haiti, where food, shelter and medical supplies are scarce. It’s created an environment where police confront looters who are trying to survive a dire situation.
Pierre Garçon can relate to Vilma. The Indianapolis Colts receiver should have all his attention focused on facing the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.
But that wasn’t the case for most of last week, when the Haitian-American spent days trying to learn the location of his family members in Haiti. About two days before his team defeated the Baltimore Ravens in a playoff game, Garçon learned through his mother, who lives in the United States, that many of his family members had survived what’s being called the biggest natural disaster ever documented.
“[There’s] still more [of my family] who need to be found,” he recently told The Times of Northwest Indiana. “It’s terrible. It’s probably the worst thing that could ever happen there. It’s a nightmare. It's a poor country, and it’s going to take a long time to rebuild.”
Unlike Vilma or Garçon, whose teams are playing for berths in the Super Bowl, Jacques Cesaire of the San Diego Chargers has plenty of time to dedicate to the relief effort. The Chargers’ season ended with a loss to the Jets in a playoff game last week.
Cesaire, a Haitian-American who was born in the United States, is considering making a trip to Haiti. Cesaire believes his family is safe since they live far away from earthquake’s epicenter in the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince.
“Haitians are resilient people,” Cesaire told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “If I know Haitian people, they’ll bounce back from this. People are going to take notice of that.”