TAMPA, Fla. — For the first time in nearly nine months, Jonathan Vilma stood at a locker in an NFL stadium, getting dressed as reporters and cameramen waited for him to snap the last button through its hole in his brown plaid shirt.
And it likely felt glorious for the embattled New Orleans Saints linebacker, especially after a 35-28 win over Tampa Bay.
Vilma, who played in his first game of the 2012 season after coming of the Physically Unable to Perform list, wouldn’t let his emotions get him, however.
Just like this past week.
“It was one of those where I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me,” Vilma said. “I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I was hurting the team by being over excited and there was really a lot to prepare for. So I would much rather focus on the preparation going into the game and when I was out there, let the emotions go.”
While some didn’t expect Vilma to ever play this season, he never lost hope.
“I did. Most people didn’t,” he said. “It was a long, drawn out process and for good or bad, it ended up this way and I was able to be back on the field with my teammates and that was a great feeling.”
Yet, Vilma was still showered with questions about the bounty scandal he’s embroiled in. On Friday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recused himself from overseeing the bounty scandal, naming former NFL honcho Paul Tagliabue as the man to take over.
While he didn’t speak Friday about the move, Vilma did Sunday, saying he hopes the move makes the process a little fairer.
“I think it’s a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator,” Vilma said. “We expect him to do things in a neutral capacity, which would be to cross examine some of the witnesses, allow us to see the evidence if there is more evidence and be able to have a fair hearing.”
The linebacker, who was suspended for the entire season but is allowed to play while the appeal is pending, said he was easily able to focus this week on football.
“That part is not the hard part, being able to block things out,” Vilma said. “During the week it’s easy. We put in 10-12 hour days. It’s easy to get lost in football and the other team and how to defend them.”
Vilma played a disruptive role early against the Buccaneers, batting one pass down and recording a quarterback hurry.
He appeared active and didn’t show any signs of wear and tear of the knee injury that kept him on PUP for the first six games of the season.
And with both Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas having to leave the game for periods, having Vilma helped deepen the unit.
“Having him back, just emotionally, really made a difference in this game,” interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. “We were trying to get him in certain packages and we had a couple of linebackers go down early in the game, so we were able to do that for the most part.”