You don’t need to know Joe Vitt very well to know that the past seven weeks were the longest of his life.
A football man through and through, Vitt lives and breathes the sport and has been passionate about coaching in the NFL for 34 years — more than half the time he’s spent on this planet.
While it’s impossible to tell exactly what he felt while serving a six-game suspension for misleading NFL investigators looking into an alleged bounty scheme run by members of the New Orleans Saints defense, it had to be a living hell for a self-proclaimed football lifer.
Vitt gave a hint when he entered the media workroom at the Saints training facility Monday, less than 24 hours after his suspension was lifted following Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, and greeted reporters.
“I never thought I would say this,” he said, “but it’s good to see you guys.”
During his time away, Vitt could have no contact with any players or coaches, although he did receive permission to attend the Oct. 7 game with San Diego in which Drew Brees set the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Vitt watched it with General Manager Mickey Loomis, who has two games left on his eight-game suspension, and visited briefly after the game with coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season.
Other than that, it wasn’t exactly a picnic — for Vitt, or his wife, Linda.
“At the end of the day, my wife should be nominated for the Ed Block Courage Award,” he said of the award each NFL team annually votes to a player or coach who overcomes adversity. “My wife is a great mother and wife, but she really became a great friend to me over this time.”
Predictably, Vitt’s time off wasn’t spent playing golf, fishing or sipping fruity drinks on a Caribbean beach.
He worked with the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and Wounded Warriors, talked to the Towson football team (he’s a former linebacker who played on the Tigers’ unbeaten team in 1974) before it played LSU last month, lent support to flood victims in LaPlace and spoke to the Tulane football team.
“I stayed as busy as I could for as long as I could,” Vitt said. “I know I looked at my watch and the calendar a lot.”
Naturally, when it finally came time to rejoin the team, he couldn’t wait one minute longer.
He paid his own way for a commercial flight to Tampa on Sunday morning, then flew back on the team charter following a 35-28 victory over the Bucs.
On Sunday night, when the Saints play the Denver Broncos, Vitt will be back on the sideline filling in for Payton as the interim coach.
Which, the Saints say, is where he belongs.
“Joe’s been in this league for, I don’t know, 135 years … or something like that,” said tackle Zach Strief. “This is what he knows. This is his home and this is part of his family, and they took it away from him. It’s difficult.”