The men who took the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl have started to bang down the doors of the Saints Hall of Fame, beginning a wave that likely won't stop anytime soon.
One year after defensive end Will Smith was enshrined posthuously, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and left guard Carl Nicks were introduced as the Saints Hall of Fame's 2017 class Tuesday, a pair of no-brainer additions.
Vilma, Nicks and administrative director Jay Romig, who was named the recipient of the Joe Gemelli "Fleur-de-Lis" Award as a contributor, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Oct. 28, the weekend the Saints play the Chicago Bears. For the first time, the induction ceremony will happen in Champions Square.
“I didn’t cry when we won the Super Bowl, so I’m not going to cry today, but that’s how important this is to me," Nicks said.
For Nicks and Vilma, the Saints represented a second chance, albeit in different ways.
When New Orleans traded for Vilma in 2008, he was an established star with the New York Jets, a Pro Bowler who seemed like he was on top of the NFL.
But he never felt the sense of chemistry and camaraderie in New York that he'd remembered from his college days at Miami. Entering the New Orleans locker room felt like coming home.
"When I got here, it was almost like a breath of fresh air," Vilma said. "Having 53 guys on the same page is hard, but when it's there, it clicks and it's working, it's rolling, it's functioning, there's nothing better."
Vilma became the backbone of the Saints' defense, the cerebral play-caller who was indispensable for his ability to direct the unit on the field. In six years in New Orleans, Vilma racked up 530 tackles, eight sacks and six interceptions, making the Pro Bowl twice.
His battle of wits in practice with quarterback Drew Brees have become the stuff of legend.
"That's the greatest complement I could get," Vilma said. "Drew Brees was the best teammate I ever had. There are some guys that make you naturally take your game up a notch. ... He knew how competitive I was, and he's extremely competitive."
Nicks found himself in a very different place before he joined the Saints.
Originally projected as a first-round pick, Nicks fell to the fifth round because of concerns about worth ethic at Nebraska and an arrest for disorderly conduct before his pro day.
On draft day, instead of getting the dream phone call, Nicks endured an inquisition from his future head coach, Sean Payton.
"I think Sean talked to me for an hour, an hour and 15 minutes, grilling me," Nicks said. "Lecturing me. And it kind of brought me back to reality. At the end of the conversation, he was like, 'We're going to draft you.' "
Nicks says Payton's lecture was a wakeup call.
And New Orleans reaped the benefits. Nicks started 61 of 64 games he played for the Saints, made the Pro Bowl twice and gave Brees the best tandem of guards in the game, teaming with Jahri Evans to form a devastating duo.
Nicks left in 2012, but those Saints teammates still have a powerful hold on him.
"Especially Jahri. I can't wait for him to go to the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame," Nicks said. "Hopefully, he invites me. Drew and all these guys, they're still balling."
Nicks and Vilma said the Saints were good enough to win more than one Super Bowl, particularly because of the way they played in 2011.
NFL fans will always remember 2009. For men like Vilma and Nicks, it's the entire run.
"I usually take that whole stretch," Vilma said. "It was a good four-year stretch we had, and I appreciate that whole time. '09 was obviously the top, and we won a championship, but we had some really good teams and really good guys."