NEW ORLEANS - Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to federal court on Thursday in his ongoing fight to get his year-long suspension overturned.
The move comes after Monday's hearing before a federal magistrate failed to yield an agreement between the NFL and Vilma and the NFL Players Association.
Federal Judge Ginger Berrigan heard the case about that temporary restraining order that Vilma is seeking. Berrigan announced she does not plan to rule Thrusday in the Jonathan Vilma case. Lawyers are still presenting case.
That restraining order would allow Vilma to basically return to work and put a stop to his year-long suspension by the NFL.
Vilma's attorneys are expected to introduce 10 exhibits and call eight witnesses, including Vilma, Saints interim Head Coach Joe Vitt and several Saints players, including Roman Harper and Sedrick Ellis.
Vilma took the stand first.
"I never offered money to encourage a teammate to hurt an opposing player. I never received a dime for hurting a player," he said. "There was never a bounty program. If there was, as captain, I would have stopped it."
He said that pay for performance did exist, but not in antagonistic manner.
"Guys got paid out of a lot for interceptions, tough tackles, sacks, interceptions for a touchdown, all the positive plays a defensive player would make...we never talked about injuring players," he said.
Attorneys for the NFL do not intend to call any witnesses or submit exhibits, according to court filings.
Vilma said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has done irreparable damage.
"He hurt me and what I stand for to my core, who I am, everything I worked for is now down the toilet. It's now bounty this, bounty that, he's a criminal."
For the first time, Vilma directly contested the NFL's findings regarding the so-called bounty program. He categorically denied offering bounty money at defensive team meetings before the Arizona and Minnesota playoff games during the Saints' Super Bowl season. The NFL accuses Vilma of offering $10,000 for knockout hits to quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre, at one point waving $5,000 cash in each hand in front of dozens of players and coaches.
"That's 100 percent false," Vilma testified.
Vilma refuted other NFL accusations regarding a bounty program saying the league misinterpreted key evidence against him and others.
"There was never a bounty program," he said.
For example, Vilma said the term "kill the head," did not characterize an illegal hit, but was used to describe a high legal tackle that pushed a ball-carrier backwards. He testified that a tackle described as a "whack" simply meant a tackle below the waist, mostly utilized by smaller defensive backs. As a linebacker, Vilma said he took pride in avoiding whacks. "I don't go low," he said.
He drew a finer distinction when asked to describe term "cart-off tackle," which he admitted was used to describe tackles that sent opposing players to the bench. But Vilma noted that the cart-off was meant to be a legal, but hard, hit that knocked the wind out of a player or forced them to sit for a few plays.
"I've never offered money to hurt a player, not with the Saints, not with the Jets," Vilma testified. "I've never received a dime for hurting another player."
Vilma testified that, contrary to the NFL's findings, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams openly discouraged players from making any tackles that were illegal or drew a penalty.
He quoted Williams as saying, "Get to it, but never cross the line. Never hurt your team."
Vilma said the one-year suspension has been devastating to him in many ways. In addition to missing the start of training camp and not being able to rehabilitate his knee with the Saints' training staff, Vilma testified that he has lost two major endorsement contracts, was denied financing for a restaurant venture and has been unable to raise money for his charitable foundation
Interim head coach Joe Vitt also testified in the case. Vitt testified for nearly an hour, denying the existence of a bounty or pay-to-injure program. "Make no mistake, at no time did any of our player cross the white line to hurt or injure to end the career of another player."
Vitt and Vilma admitted on the witness stand that the Saints had a pay-for-performance program, but both adamantly testified there was no pay-to-injure program.
Eyewitness News legal analyst Chick Foret said this could be a make or break moment in Vilma's career.
"More importantly, the clock is ticking on his career - if he's suspended for the entire year, he may be done. He may be forced into retirement, because he doesn't have, in my mind, that many games left," Foret said.
The Saints first practice is set for Thursday, as well.
Because of that, Drew Brees is not expected to appear in court. Instead, he submitted a sworn affidavit in support of Vilma.