Jonathan Vilma is as Miami Hurricane as it gets. As an eight-year-old he would dream of being a Hurricane, a dream that he would fulfill from 2000 to 2003 as a middle linebacker in one of the greatest eras of Hurricanes football. A leader in the middle of the defense for Miami during the early 2000s, he was later drafted by the New York Jets and also played with the New Orleans Saints. Although he played away from Miami during the season, Vilma never forgot where he came from; he returned home in the off-season and, most importantly, represented the University of Miami wherever he went.
Vilma attended Coral Gables High School, along with fellow Miami alumnus Frank Gore, and made the All-Dade (County) team his senior year. Vilma had an impressive senior year, setting a school record for tackles with 109 solo tackles. A team captain for the Coral Gables Cavaliers football team his final two seasons, he was also a two-year letterwinner on the basketball team.
As a Hurricane, Vilma was named a freshman All-American after the 2000 season and an All-Big East member three times (2001–2003). He was also recognized as a freshman All-American in 2000 by the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Football Foundation. He was a semi-finalist in 2002 and a finalist in 2003 for the Butkus Award, which recognizes the best linebacker in college football. If none of these accolades endear him to you, then a 5–0 record against Florida State during his four-year career at Miami should sway you. Among his most memorable moments as a Hurricane, his 9 tackles and 36-yard fumble return against the Seminoles to help end their 54-game home winning streak is a tale of legend.
By the time Vilma’s collegiate career concluded, he had put together an impressive stat line: 250 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 7 hurries, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 9 pass break-ups, and 1 interception.
Vilma’s recognition for numerous achievements in the classroom are just as notable as his success in football. He was a three-time academic All-Big
East member and was chosen as Miami’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year for 2002–2003. Here is a list of the many other notable awards he achieved:
- Academic All-American (2x)
- AD Honor Roll
- Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar-Athlete
- Big East Football Honor Roll
- Book Buster
- Dean’s List
- Iron Arrow Member
- Provost’s Honor Roll
- Walter Kichefski Endowed Football Scholarship (awarded by the UMSHoF)
Welcome to the NFL
Vilma went to the NFL after the 2003 season and was part of the historic 2004 NFL Draft, where six Miami Hurricanes were selected in the first round. Vilma was selected as the12th overall pick by the New York Jets.
Two weeks after the NFL Draft, Vilma walked in his commencement, graduating from the University of Miami School of Business with a bachelor’s degree in Finance (with a minor in marketing). In a 2015 interview with hurricanesports.com, Vilma shared what it was like to graduate a couple weeks after being drafted into the NFL. “My fondest memory as a student was when I graduated,” Vilma said. “It was two weeks after I was drafted and the business school replayed my selection as I was walking across the stage. All the seniors gave me a standing ovation. The joy I felt was intoxicating. I’ll never forget it.”
As a rookie the University of Miami alumnus paid immediate dividends to the Jets. In his first year with the team, Vilma accounted for 77 total tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 interceptions, with one returned for a touchdown. The season was good enough to earn him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award from the Associated Press.
At the end of his incredible rookie year, Vilma led the NFL in tackles with 169 combined tackles and 124 total tackles. For his efforts, he represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl at the end of the season.
For much of his first three seasons in the NFL, Vilma was the dominant and instinctual linebacker he’d been as a Miami Hurricane. However, few players are able to make it through a career unscathed. Vilma’s first major injury came in his fourth season, a contract year and ended his season. He was placed on the injured reserved list. It was the first time that Vilma had missed games in his professional career. The injury marked the end of both his healthy streak and his time as a NY Jet.
According to a report from the New York Daily News, it was revealed that Vilma has osteochondritis dissecans. The report indicates that both Vilma and the Jets were aware of the issue. It appears that Vilma paid off as much as the Jets had hoped he would. While Vilma did not specify if this condition was indeed the cause of the injury, unfortunately, the injury came at a time when he was looking to sign a lucrative second contract.
Vilma was traded on February 29, 2008 to the New Orleans Saints for a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and a conditional pick (which turned out to be a third-round pick) in the 2009 Draft. Vilma would provide stability on defense for the Saints, who had an average NFL defense before his arrival.
After having a strong 2008 season, putting to rest concerns surrounding his health, Vilma was rewarded with the shiny contract he deserved, signing a five-year, $34-million contract ($6-million signing bonus) with the Saints.
In 2009 Vilma was voted a defensive captain, tallied 110 combined tackles (2 sacks), and tied his career-high interceptions total (3) on the way to a Super Bowl XXXIV appearance. Due to his preparation and play during the game, Vilma helped the Saints emerge victorious with a 31–17 win over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Vilma continued to lead the team in tackles in the 2010 season, and he earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl. Following the highs of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the lows of 2011 and 2012 threatened to derail Vilma’s career and integrity.
Vilma vs. The Shield
While Vilma did start in 11 games in 2011, he suffered another knee injury that sidelined him for 6 games.
In 2012 news broke that the New Orleans Saints were under investigation for a bounty program that paid players on defense incentives for deliberately injuring opponents. While head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took most of the PR damage, Vilma became the central figure in the league’s investigation. The NFL implied that Vilma had put up $10,000 for any player who could take Brett Favre out of the NFC divisional playoff game in 2009. Throughout the process, however, Vilma maintained his innocence.
On May 2, 2012, Jonathan Vilma was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2012 season. The league was convinced that DE Will Smith and Vilma, along with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, founded the bounty program in 2009. As soon as the suspension was announced, Vilma declared his intention to appeal it, looking to clear his name. Taking matters further, Vilma filed a personal slander lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
In July Vilma, along with several teammates, testified in front of a federal judge that Goodell misrepresented the facts of the case. The Saints were vindicated, the suspension were overturned on September 7, just three days before the Saints’ season-opener at home against the Redskins.
With the legal battle behind him, Vilma could focus on matters between the painted lines. However, the NFL and Roger Goodell were not content to leave the matter unresolved. Vilma and three other Saints teammates were once again suspended for their roles in the bounty program. Vilma again looked down the barrel of a year-long suspension. This time the NFL turned to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to resolve the issue for a final time. The league, however, overturned Goodell’s decision and reinstated the suspended players on December 11, 2012.
Jonathan Vilma fought the league and won, twice! Surely there were some people who felt he should have stopped fighting, kept quiet, and taken whatever punishment the league handed down. Instead, he fought loudly, never regressing, adamant about his integrity in the matter. It has to be a surreal feeling to humble the league brass like he did.
Closing the Chapter
The saying goes that you don’t leave the game on your own terms—the game throws you out when it’s ready. In 2012 Vilma went on to play 11 games in a season marred by his legal battle.
In the 2013 preseason Vilma had surgery on his knee, hoping to become available later in the season. He only played in one game, however, and ended the season on injured reserve.
In the following off-season the Saints declined to extend Vilma’s contract, and he subsequently became a free agent. On December 6, 2015, Jonathan Vilma officially retired from the NFL during a Saints home game.
Life After Football
Intellect is a skill that translates well off the field. Vilma was responsible for making the calls and adjustments during the 2001 season that featured the best college football team of all time. As much as Vilma’s love for football shines through, he is a man of many interests—a Renaissance man, if you will.
Vilma admits that he does a great job of compartmentalizing. Given the ventures he pursues and is currently involved in, it’s amazing that he finds the time and energy to put his best foot forward with each venture.
“The mental component has helped prepare me tremendously for life outside of football,” Vilma said. “Learning to deal with different people, different personalities, team building and creating a culture that breeds success are invaluable assets I’ve learned. It’s helped me transition smoothly into settings outside of football.” -quote courtesy of hurricanessports.com
In a 2015 ceremony, Vilma was inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame. This October he will join another exclusive club when he is inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame along with guard Carl Nicks.
Post-football career, Vilma has worked as a guest analyst for Bleacher Report, a studio analyst for NBC Sports, and at other media outlets.
Vilma operates the My Brother Jimmy’s BBQ outlet at the Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater, Florida. Most recently he partnered with the co-founders of Pincho’s Factory to open up a location in Brickell, Florida. Last year he was named a college football analyst for ESPN, and he was elected to the University of Miami’s board of trustees in May of this year. Vilma also has his own philanthropic pursuits with the Jonathan Vilma Foundation, which is helping to rebuild Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Staying close to home, Vilma still resides in Miami and is a fixture at the athletic facility, where he still works out with fellow UM teammates such as DJ Williams.
After looking at Jonathan Vilma’s career, you come to realize that football does not define who he is or what he does. While the game has been more than good to him, and vice versa, he has pursuits outside the sport that are just as fascinating. If Vilma were to run for political office of some sort, it would not be a surprise. In fact, he should be the favorite given what he’s accomplished in his life up to this point.
Jonathan Vilma represents the U as well as any person can.