Slowly but surely, key players from the Super Bowl XLIV championship team are taking their rightful places inside the New Orleans Saints’ Hall of Fame.
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and left guard Carl Nicks were introduced as the newest members Tuesday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, each having received the necessary votes from a 22-member media selection committee during a spirited luncheon meeting in late February.
Formal induction ceremonies will be held the weekend of Oct. 27-29 culminating with a home game against the Chicago Bears.
Vilma and Nicks join 2016 inductee Will Smith as the first three players from the ’09 team to gain entry into the team’s Hall of Fame that now counts 49 among the fold.
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Smith was inducted posthumously in October after being gunned down in April at the age of 34 following a minor traffic accident in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Those three players will not be the last members from that ’09 team to be enshrined.
Other potential inductees in years to come include coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, quarterback Drew Brees, running back Reggie Bush, wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, tackles Jon Stinchcomb, Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod, cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, guard Jahri Evans, linebacker Scott Fujita, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, and punter Thomas Morstead, among others.
Imprisoned serial rapist Darren Sharper, who returned three of his team-high nine INTs for touchdowns as a free safety in ’09, also starred on that team. But his inclusion is highly unlikely because of his felonious conduct.
For the moment, however, the spotlight falls on Vilma and Nicks, each of whom played integral roles on that ’09 team that finished 13-3 during the regular season and went on to beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.
A central figure in the Bounty scandal of 2012, Vilma played all or parts of six seasons in New Orleans after being acquired from the New York Jets for two middle-round draft picks in ’08. The popular defensive captain earned Pro Bowl honors in 2009 and ’10, leading the team in tackles both seasons.
Injuries and a contentious legal fight with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disrupted Vilma’s final two seasons in New Orleans. Now 35, Vilma works as a college football commentator and studio analyst for ESPN.
“When they called to tell me I had been elected, I got all choked up,” Vilma said Tuesday. “Until the last few days, I couldn’t tell anybody. I guess it was the first time I was ever speechless. But I have called some of the linebackers on that ’09 team — Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita.
“It means a lot to me.”
Nicks, 32, saw his NFL career cut short in 2014 because of health issues and a lengthy battle with MRSA while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nicks never missed a game in four stellar seasons in New Orleans (2008-’11) and parlayed that stint into a five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Buccaneers in March 2012.
Nicks, who owns a real estate company in Sacramento, California, nearly lost his left foot as a result of his bout with MRSA. He eventually retired at the age of 29 after playing nine games in two seasons with Tampa Bay (2012-’13).
“Four surgeries and two infections with MRSA later, I’m walking fine,’’ Nicks said. “I’m no longer walking with a limp and I can wear a shoe on my left foot.
“Do I regret leaving New Orleans? Nah. In hindsight, I don’t think I would have done anything different. The Saints offered me what they thought I was worth at the time and they knew Tampa Bay paid me a lot more money. It’s a business, and I didn’t take it personal. You can’t sit there and be mad. The Saints did what they thought was in their best interests.’’
NOTE: Long-time Saints administrative director Jay Romig was named the recipient of the 2017 Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis award, which goes annually to a person who has contributed to the betterment of the organization. Romig will begin his 41st year with the Saints later this summer. His late father, Jerry, the team’s longtime public address announcer, received the Fleur de Lis award in 2009.
Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at email@example.com.