Dressed in a suit and tie and sporting a big smile, Jonathan Vilma handed over a check to the University of Miami athletic department on Tuesday for $450,000, a donation that goes toward completing the funding for the Theodore G. Schwartz and Todd G. Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence.
The fact Vilma made the donation is no surprise. The Saints Pro Bowl middle linebacker has always had a big heart. He does countless events in the South Florida community and in two years has raised over $200,000 in relief efforts for the earthquake victims in Haiti through his foundation. He said Tuesday he will be going to Haiti in November -- during the Saints bye week -- to visit the schools and people his foundation has been aiding.
In honor of Tuesday's gift, UM will name the new players lounge, a space for football players to relax and gather before and after practice at the Schwartz Center, in Vilma's honor.
Vilma isn't the first former Cane to open his wallet to help his alma mater. Recently retired running back Edgerrin James has done it before and has the team's meeting room named in his honor.
Still, it's harder to find a player Canes fans should love more than Vilma.
Like many former Canes, he's gone back to UM after each of his first seven NFL seasons to train with Andreu Swasey and serve as a mentor for current and former players during their spring and summer workouts. But he spends more time there than anybody -- "anywhere from 3 1/2 to 4 months," he said Tuesday, "from February to June." One season, he said, he even took a fine from the Jets so he could remain at UM, instead of training with pro teammates.
And the relationships he builds with young players when he's at UM are deep. Sean Spence calls him "a big brother."
"Jon is a guy I look up to," Spence said. "That was one of the linebackers I always watched growing up. Then when I got here, he took me under his wing as a little brother. We ran with it from there. He's done nothing but kept it real with me, told me what I needed to work on, what I needed to be a great linebacker here at UM. We've watched film a couple times and I think it really helps me look at the game different. But it's not all about football. We talk and have a couple laughs too."
Swasey said having Vilma around "is huge because players not only hear what he says, but see him come in at 7 a.m. and do everything they do."
"A lot of guys come in, but he's probably here more than anybody," said Swasey, UM's strength and conditioning coach. "Sometimes the NFL might seem so distant for these guys. But he gives them a platform. He's approachable, he communicates with them and gives them hope. They say 'Man I can do it.' That's pretty special."
Al Golden said Vilma has become "the quintessential Miami Hurricane."
"One of the things we talk about is gratitude and appreciation and I think this is the ultimate illustration of gratitude," Golden said. "All you have to do is listen to his speech. If that doesn't move you or help you understand what it means to be a part of the University of Miami football program, I don't know what will. That's an amazing human being right there."