WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Jonathan Vilma didn’t hesitate when he heard of the horror that struck Haiti this past January.
With an earthquake leaving much of the country in ruins, his mind raced with thoughts of his family, hoping they weren’t among the 300,000 dead.
“I was fortunate to learn pretty quickly that my family, my mom and dad, were OK,” he said at a media conference. “That was a big relief. I was able to get back to football, but those pictures were so grim. They wouldn’t go away.”
So how did the Saints’ All-Pro linebacker help?
Vilma began a charity to raise money for the nation of his ancestry, selling special “Domeland Defense” T-shirts to raise money to support relief efforts. He also helped the Red Cross by filming a public service announcement that was aired during the Super Bowl.
“I don’t want to just hand money over to anybody,” Vilma told reporters. “I want to make sure it goes to where the help really needs to be.”
Vilma intended to visit Haiti shortly after the catastrophe, but he couldn’t with the championship game looming. He thought coordinating a campaign to raise funds was the best option outside clearing rubble himself.
Vilma made seven tackles to help lead the team to their first Super Bowl title with a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts. How’s that for good karma?
Vilma, at 6-feet 1 and 230 pounds, was born in Coral Gables, Fla., in 1982 after his parents emigrated from Haiti in the 1970s. But they returned to Haiti after Vilma, a former standout linebacker at the University of Miami, established himself as one of the best players at his position in the National Football League (NFL).
Vilma, 28, signed a five-year, US$34.5 million deal in February 2009.
And he’s been worth every penny.
He’s recorded 50 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception this season, including making eight stops in a 20-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 31 to improve New Orleans’ record to five wins against three losses. The Saints face the Carolina Panthers (1-6) in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 7.
Vilma said the Saints can become the eighth franchise to win consecutive Super Bowls.
“It’s up to the core guys. It’s up to us to keep pushing and pushing and strive for better,” he said at a recent media conference. “We can’t allow ourselves to get tired because that's going to allow, now, the rookies to come in and say, ‘Well, that’s what they are doing, so I can do the same thing.’ We can’t afford that, so we have to apply that pressure on our teammates.”
Haiti, however, never is far from his mind. He has visited the United Nations in New York City, speaking with diplomats about getting affordable, hurricane-proof shelters for developing nations such as Haiti.
“Everyone who can do something about it needs to get involved. I want to make a difference,” Vilma said. “My calling is to play football with the best of my ability and from there, do whatever I can to help.”