For backup safety Vinnie Sunseri, the best and worst moments of his rookie season with the New Orleans Saints this year occurred in the same game.
The two tackles on punt coverage he made at home in a 27-24 overtime defeat to San Francisco on Nov. 9 were a personal highlight. They’re among the reasons why the 3.5 yards per punt return the Saints had been surrendering as of Tuesday were the fewest in the NFL, and they tripled the amount of special-teams tackles the fifth-round draft selection out of Alabama had posted as a pro.
But later that game, as he tried to snuff out a third punt return, Sunseri broke his left arm in two places. He soon landed on injured reserve; and he had to sit out the rest of the season.
That was the fate he suffered after missing most of his final year at Alabama, where he won national titles in 2011 and ’12 but then tore the ACL in his left knee covering a kickoff early in the ’13 campaign.
“It’s never easy to be hurt no matter what kind of injury it is,” Sunseri said Tuesday after speaking to students at Mildred S. Harris Elementary School in Bridge City about the importance of reading during a literacy visit sponsored by Rotolo’s Pizzeria. “To not be out there to help my teammates and ... coaches is just a bummer.”
Yet Sunseri said his efforts to recover from his broken arm aren’t as hard as they otherwise might be because he has two fellow safeties who are veterans going through a similar experience. And he still gets to feel that he’s a part of the Saints by attending team and position group meetings, chiming in whenever he can to assist those who are filling in for him and his injured compatriots Rafael Bush and Jairus Byrd.
“We’re all teammates, and we’re all trying to get the same thing done,” said Sunseri, whose Saints are in playoff contention even at 5-7. “We’re trying to get to the playoffs — trying to get to a Super Bowl.”
Sunseri’s three solo tackles on special teams before he got hurt tied him for second on the Saints with four other players at the time. He had logged 11 snaps on defense as an extra safety as well, registering half a tackle.
He was one of three Saints safeties to suffer season-ending injuries between Oct. 2 and Nov. 16. First, Byrd tore a meniscus in one of his knees during a practice. Then, a week after Sunseri broke his arm, Bush fractured his fibula in a loss to Cincinnati.
It set up a situation where Sunseri was recuperating alongside two mentors. Bush has been with the Saints since 2011 and started after Byrd went down. Byrd has been in the NFL since 2009 and earned three Pro Bowl nods before he signed with New Orleans in March.
“We have each other’s back,” Sunseri said of rehabbing with Bush and Byrd. “We always talk to each other, keep each other’s spirits up.”
All of that also required the Saints to shuffle the roster around so as to not compromise the team’s depth at safety.
With second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro and CFL import Marcus Ball healthy at the position, the Saints acquired free agent Jamarca Sanford and signed Pierre Warren away from Minnesota’s practice squad.
Sanford started at Minnesota from 2011-13 and has essentially been emulating Sunseri’s role, producing one tackle on special teams in the six games he’s been with the Saints.
Meanwhile, after completing training camp with the Saints; being cut; eventually latching onto Minnesota’s practice squad; and being brought onto New Orleans’ 53-man roster following Bush’s fibula break, Warren is starting at free safety.
The Saints are 1-1 since losing Bush, the win coming Sunday against the Steelers at Heinz Field.
Sunseri conceded Sanford and Warren didn’t step into easy assignments, joining the Saints’ active roster with the season well underway. Nonetheless, Sanford is in capable hands with special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon, who “can get anybody ready for a football game,” Sunseri said. And Warren is in good company with Vaccaro, whom Sunseri called a “great leader.”
Considering the circumstances, “they’re doing great right now,” Sunseri said of the safeties.
Sunseri acknowledged his injury won’t let him be much more than the “biggest fan of the Saints organization” for a bit, but he promised that’d change in 2015.
“I’ll definitely be back next year,” Sunseri said. “And I’ll be ready to make an impact.”