By Mike Triplett | The Times-Picayune | nola.com | September 21, 2012
It should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever met Joe Vitt that he's not well-equipped to handle a six-week suspension away from coaching. The football lifer can rarely even manage six hours of sleep without heading back into the office.
So the New Orleans Saints assistant head coach has found a remarkable way to turn this whole sordid bounty mess into a positive.
Vitt will head to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Monday, where he plans to live around the clock for the next few weeks while working with wounded combat veterans from the United States armed forces through the Semper Fi Fund program.
"If I can't be around my players, maybe I can be around these 'wounded warriors,' and help them with their rehab," said Vitt, who hasn't been away from the NFL since he started coaching for the Baltimore Colts in 1979. "I'm extremely fired up about this. I'm going to leave my cell phone at home, I'm going to check into Walter Reed Hospital, and I'm going to stay as long as they want me.
"I'm fired up about that opportunity to help these guys. And I hope at the end of the day I'm of some use to them."
Vitt said he plans to show up with "nothing but a toothbrush" – well, that and his 34 years of NFL coaching experience.
He has ideas of helping the veterans with their rehab while also teaching them about what it's like to prepare for a typical NFL game week, complete with all the film cut-ups and game-planning sessions. And he may bring in some coaching colleagues for help along the way.
But Vitt said he'll adjust on the fly and do whatever they need from him.
"I think it's going to take me three or four days to really get the lay of the land, see what I can do to help. Then once I get into the groove, I may stay up there 'til the better part of the suspension is over," said Vitt, who is scheduled to return to the Saints after their Oct. 21 game at Tampa Bay.
"I'm 'in,'" Vitt added. "Our players know what that means. If you're in, you're in. I'm not just going to dip my toe in the water. But I'm nervous as hell. I don't know what to expect."
Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita and current Saints linebacker Scott Shanle both said they weren't surprised to hear about Vitt's plans – both because they know Vitt can't stay idle and because they know what kind of guy Vitt is.
"First of all, he's someone who can't sit still. But more importantly, he loves camaraderie and the idea of having a shared sense of purpose, and he absolutely loves just being around the guys," said Fujita, who has stressed in the past that Vitt is on a short list of coaches who mean a great deal to him personally.
"I know this time has to be difficult for Joe, because I've never been around a coach who cares more about his players and their families," said Fujita, who started to serve his own three-game bounty suspension with the Cleveland Browns before they were overturned by a collective-bargaining-agreement appeals panel. "And it's easy to begin to feel a bit of a disconnect when you're away from the guys. I felt that way even for just the few days that I was away from my team.
"Hopefully his time at Walter Reed will help fill that void. He has a lot to offer those wounded warriors, and I'm certain they'll have a lot to offer him."
Shanle echoed Fujita's thoughts.
"A lot of people with that kind of time off would sit around and do more selfish things. But I think it just shows who Joe Vitt is," Shanle said. "Even as a coach, Joe's always looking out for other people and putting other people before himself. And this is just a great example."
However, Shanle cautioned, "I hope he doesn't make them try to do a linebacker individual workout, because they won't want him back then."
Vitt spent most of the first three weeks of his suspension visiting family in various parts of the country, and he also visited his alma mater Towson to talk about player safety, among other things. But he said didn’t want to talk much about what it's been like for him to sit back from afar and watch the Saints during their rough start to this season.
As you can imagine, the exile has probably been driving him crazy, but Vitt said he wants the focus to be on the team and not, "Poor me."
Vitt also declined to discuss all the latest developments in the bounty battle between the league and the accused players, though he again promised that one day he will voice all of his opinions on the matter when the time is right.
"This is not about me, this is about our football team," Vitt said. "I love our coaches, love our guys. We've had tough times before and we'll get through them."
Vitt was willing to share his plans for visiting the wounded warriors, though, because he's so passionate about the idea.
The Saints visited the wounded veterans at Walter Reed after they visited the White House as reigning Super Bowl champions in 2010, and he said the hospital visit had a much more lasting impact on all the coaches and players.
So Vitt said when he and suspended General Manager Mickey Loomis talked this summer about ways they could make a positive difference during their suspensions, he thought about those wounded warriors.
"This is not something you have a chance to do during the season," Vitt said.
Karen Guenther, the president and founder of the Semper Fi Fund, was thrilled when she found out that Vitt was interested in working with the veterans, because she said sports is such a "powerful" part of their recovery programs. Among other efforts, they have developed a sports team with more than 375 eligible service members called Team Semper Fi that travels around the country to compete in various events. So many of the wounded veterans are in their physical "primes" and use sports as a way to stay motivated and competitive.
"This will be such an incredible morale boost. It's going to be amazing," Guenther said of Vitt's involvement. "The Semper Fi Fund is proud and honored that Coach Vitt is joining our mission of service to our wounded veterans and their families."