Nicks, Vilma set to march into team Hall of Fame as Super Bowl winning Saints
NEW ORLEANS — The Saints Super Bowl championship team is carving out its own wing in the organization’s Hall of Fame.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma and offensive lineman Carl Nicks will become the 48th and 49th inductees into the 29-year-old Hall of Fame in October, it was announced Tuesday. Additionally, Jay Romig, a versatile 41-year member of the Saints front office, will receiver the Joe Gemelli Fleur-de-Lis Award, which is given annually to a person who has contributed to the betterment of the Saints organization.
Vilma and Nicks were leaders on the team that won New Orleans’ only Super Bowl title after the 2009 season.
Their election comes one year after defensive lineman Will Smith was inducted posthumously as the first member of the Super Bowl team to be enshrined. More are sure to follow in coming years.
“We were all on the same page and having 53 guys on the same page is really hard to do,” Vilma said of the championship team, “but when it’s there and it clicks and it’s working and it’s rolling and it’s functional there’s nothing better. That camaraderie will stay with me for the rest of my life. I enjoyed every minute I had here.”
Vilma was chosen by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft and played for the Jets for four seasons. He said he got frustrated in New York because he didn’t feel the same closeness and competitiveness there that he thrived on during his college career at the University of Miami.
That changed when he was traded to New Orleans during the 2008 off-season.
“When I got here it was like a breath of fresh air,” Vilma said.
During his six seasons with the Saints, Vilma was sometimes referred to as “the Drew Brees of the defense” because he was the heart and brain of his unit just as Brees was the same for the offense as quarterback.
“That was the greatest compliment I could get was when fans would tell me that because Drew Brees was the best teammate that I ever had,” Vilma said. “There are some people who just naturally make you take your game up a notch. He was one of those guys. He knew how competitive I was. He’s extremely competitive. I hope I helped him bring his game up. He certainly brought my game up a notch.”
In addition to Brees, a surefire future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Vilma singled out less-decorated teammates in running back Pierre Thomas and linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who were undrafted, and linebackers Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita who were unheralded veterans when they came to New Orleans before the 2006 season.
“They worked really hard and they were awesome teammates and they produced,” Vilma said. “That’s really what football is all about. You don’t have to be the most talented team, but everybody comes together. They’re on the same page, they work hard, they’re talented and then you see it on the field.
“You look at Pierre Thomas and one person couldn’t tackle him, he would always break a tackle. That’s just about him and what’s inside of him. To have so many guys on the same team like that, it was really special.”
After the Saints finished 8-8 during an injury-plagued season in Vilma’s first season in 2008, they made a dramatic leap in 2009, winning their first 13 games.
“We jelled so quickly,” Vilma said. “It all clicked and it all meshed and it all worked.”
He said the first time the team faced competition — in training camp workouts with the Houston Texans — he knew he was part of a group destined to do great things.
“We were so far ahead of them,” Vilma said, “not in terms of talent, but in demeanor and attitude and how we competed. We knew we had a special team.”
By virtually all accounts, Nicks had the talent to be a special player coming out of Nebraska in 2008, but his draft stock dropped significantly after police in Lincoln, Neb., were called to break up a boisterous party and Nicks and others were arrested for refusing to disperse when instructed to do so.
Instead of being a first- or second-round pick, Nicks was still available when Saints coach Sean Payton called Nicks as the organization pondered its fifth-round selection.
“Most guys’ draft days go a little differently,” Nicks said. “They get a phone call and it’s congratulations. I think Sean talked to me for an hour, an hour and a half, grilling me: “why are you still on the board? you can’t be doing that” — lecturing me.
“It kind of brought me back to reality. At the end of the conversation he was like, “we’re going to draft you — fifth-round pick.” I said, “thanks.” Everyone in my house was happy and excited that I got drafted and I was thinking, “this is not what I expected. I have something to prove to people that I’m worth what they thought I was.” It worked out good.”
Nicks became a starter and a standout as a rookie and went on to be selected twice to the Pro Bowl and named first-team All-Pro once during his four seasons in New Orleans.
He left the organization as a free agent after the 2011 season and played two seasons with Tampa Bay before retiring. Nick’s departure was financially induced as the organization couldn’t afford to pay both him and fellow All-Pro guard Jahri Evans.
“But,” Nicks said unequivocally, “everyone knows where my heart is.”
Nicks was effusive in his praise of Saints owner Tom Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton for believing in him.
“This is bigger than the Super Bowl,” Nicks said of his impending induction. “I didn’t cry at the birth of any of my children and I didn’t cry when we won the Super Bowl so I can’t cry now. I’m close, but I can’t.”
Nicks wore a three-piece suit and Vilma his brand new Saints Hall of Fame polo shirt. They’ll be together again Oct. 28 for the induction ceremony, which for the first time will take place at Champions Square on the eve of the Saints game against the Chicago Bears in the Superdome.
The next day they will be welcomed back by fans as Romig goes about his game-day duties as he has every season since 1997, the Saints’ third season in the Superdome.
“I don’t feel like I have a job,” Romig said. “I feel like what I do every day is fun.”
Romig is receiving the same award that his father, Jerry, — the Saints public-address announcer for 44 seasons — received in 2009. Jay’s brother, Mark succeeded their father, who died in 2015, and the sons’ sister Mary Beth, continues as a long-time spotter in the PA booth.
Jay noted that the season that his father received the Gemelli Award was the season that New Orleans won the Super Bowl.
“Maybe that’s a premonition,” he said.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…