‘If there is a consummate Hall of Famer, it’s Aeneas Williams’

Numbers didn't define Aeneas Williams, though he had impressive ones. It was his character as a man, on and off the field, that mattered most to him.

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — The character Aeneas Williams displayed throughout his NFL career undoubtedly would have defined him no matter what he did for a living. But the talent he showed between the white lines surely would have been hidden forever had he not decided to walk on the football team his junior season at Southern University.

If not for that, he might have been an accountant like his brother Achilles. And it wouldn’t have been pretty.

"I don’t like numbers," Williams said. "And I wouldn’t have been very happy."

But fate intervened and he played, eventually becoming a third-round pick of the Phoenix Cardinals in 1991. And thus began a 14-year NFL career as a defensive back for the Cardinals and Rams that encompassed eight Pro Bowls and, as of this Saturday in Canton, Ohio, enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

While Williams doesn’t like numbers, he accumulated some impressive ones. There were the 55 interceptions for 807 yards and nine touchdowns in his career, plus three other defensive touchdowns. One of the latter was a then-record 104-yard fumble return against the Redskins in 2000 that came two days before a vote in Arizona for a new stadium. The team’s win that day and Williams’ touchdown were believed to be the catalysts for the successful vote for a stadium that will host its second Super Bowl in February.

In the playoffs, Williams had a record of four consecutive postseason games with an interception. One of those was in the final minutes of the St. Louis Rams’ NFC Championship Game win over the Eagles in January 2002, which stopped Philadelphia’s final threat. Prior to that game, he had two pick-sixes off Brett Favre in a playoff win over the Packers.

But the numbers didn’t define Williams.

"I never wanted to be just a great player on the field," Williams said this week. "I wanted people to experience joy and fulfillment off the field as well. Early in my career, I saw a number of guys that were good on the field. But I also saw a number of guys that were challenged off the field. I wanted to share what I believed with my teammates."

Williams shared a text message he received from Jay Zygmunt, the Rams’ former general manager:

He’s a better person than he was a football player, and he’s a Hall of Fame football player.

Former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner

"Congratulations on your selection to the Hall of Fame. In my 27 years with the Rams, I was blessed to be around many great players. You’re at the top of that list with your incredible play. But your exemplary life as a man even surpasses your performances and accomplishments on the field. You are truly special and are the essence of an ultimate Hall of Famer."

Said Williams: "That sums up the kind of person I wanted to be. That’s how I wanted to be an influence for the betterment of my teammates and anybody I came in contact with."

Consider that mission accomplished. Many times over.

Williams played 10 seasons in Arizona (1991-2000), then four seasons with the Rams (2001-04). His impact was incalculable.

Aeneas Williams (left) and Dexter McCleon celebrate Williams’ late fourth-quarter interception that sealed the Rams’ NFC championship win over the Eagles.

Wide receiver Torry Holt once said on WXOS Radio in St. Louis: "He was smart, instinctive, and you always had to be aware of where he was. If I had success against Aeneas during the week in practice, it gave me confidence on Sunday.

"But, more important, he was a great man and for what he was able to bring to our locker room in terms of leadership, humbleness, work ethic. He challenged guys on an everyday basis to get better on the football field, but not only on the football field. He challenged them to get better as a young man and get better at life."

Former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who had some say in bringing Williams to St. Louis, echoed those sentiments.

"He’s a better person than he was a football player, and he’s a Hall of Fame football player," said Warner, who was in town last weekend with NFL Network. "He’s a class act in every form of the word. I’m honored that he was a teammate of mine."

When Williams was the Cardinals’ franchise player in 2001, there was talk that he might be traded. Warner recalls beseeching the team’s front office and coaching staff "to bring him in here."

"I knew he was a great player," Warner said, "but I also knew what he could bring to the table in the quality of individual … and what he would bring from a work-ethic standpoint."

Which might have been his most important trait.

"I was more than ecstatic when he came here," Warner said. "The tradition that we started in that era is that our greatest players were our greatest workers. The guys that showed up early, the guys that showed you on the practice field how to do it. The Isaac Bruces, the Marshall Faulks, Orlando Paces, Torrys.

"Those kind of guys, and Aeneas was one of those guys. I knew how valuable he would be to our team. There’s no question that rubbed off on all of us and our organization and really led to that ongoing success that we had."

Williams had always wanted to play for Tony Dungy, who was his position coach at the Senior Bowl following his final season at Southern. That didn’t happen, but he had the next best thing: working under Dungy disciple Lovie Smith, who became the Rams’ defensive coordinator the same year Williams joined the Rams.

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"There were a lot of changes on defense," said Smith, now head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "But having Aeneas meant so much. You’re putting in a new system, you’re saying this is how we want to do it, so to have a player like Aeneas there helps make the transition so much easier. That’s so young players can see how you do everything. He wasn’t a verbal guy; it was about action, leading by example. ‘This is how you prepare for a game, this is how you practice.’

"When you get a chance to meet him, you’re impressed with him the first moment you meet him; you know there’s something to him. Then you get on the practice field and you see how coachable he was for a veteran All-Pro player. He’s a veteran All-Pro player coming in and I’m a first-time defensive coordinator, but he treated me like the information I gave him … he made me think that I invented the game. He made every coach feel that way.

"The young players coming in, the Dre Blys, the Dexter McCleons, it’s one thing to hear the coach say it. But with Aeneas, they were able to see how you do it, how do you prepare, how do you get ready for practice, how do you get ready for a game. Those were the things that were special about him."

Smith acknowledged that Williams’ approach validated what he was doing as a coach.

"You’d tell your players, ‘This is what we’re going to do with technique,’" he said. "Then when you see him doing it you get a little confidence as a coach that maybe I do know what I’m doing, because I told him to do this and that’s exactly how I told him to do it — and he’s doing it that way."

A frequent occurrence at practice was Williams intercepting a pass and running the length of the field.

"Running the field," Smith repeated. "It got to a point as I set up (11-on-11s or other personnel groupings), I would always move (the line of scrimmage) down a little closer to the end zone because I knew he was going to score no matter what. If it was 80 yards we knew he was going to run it the entire way."

And that’s what he did.

"Every time Aeneas Williams got a takeaway, he scored. Right now with our guys, when we go out to practice I tell my guys: ‘You intercept the ball, you score.’ You get used to it, you’re creatures of habit. Aeneas did that every time. No one practiced harder than him."

Dave McGinnis saw that, too. McGinnis, now the Rams’ assistant head coach, has been around a lot of great players in an NFL coaching career that began in 1986 with the Chicago Bears. There was Emmitt Smith at the end of his career in Arizona. There were Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary with the Bears. And then there was Aeneas Williams with the Cardinals.

McGinnis went to Arizona as defensive coordinator in 1996, when Williams was in his sixth season.

Forty-six of Williams’ 55 career interceptions came as a Cardinal.

"After the first four months of the offseason," McGinnis recalled, "I said to Aeneas, ‘I know you might think I’m crazy, but having you playing corner for me now is like having Mike Singletary playing middle linebacker with the Bears.’

"He said, ‘That’s really high praise.’ I said, ‘Believe me, it’s true.’

"If there is a consummate Hall of Famer, it’s Aeneas Williams. Most of the years he was there in Arizona, that wasn’t a successful franchise. He was more than a successful player. His dedication and the whole ambience he brought to a pro football team was incredible. There’s a common thread that runs through all six of those Hall of Famers that I’ve been involved with.

"They have the innate ability to uplift all the players around them. They were extremely focused and they were someone you not only wanted to be with on the field, you wanted to be with them all the time. The biggest thing that I know is the Hall of Fame is getting someone that’s not only a Hall of Fame football player, but a Hall of Fame man through and through."

Williams is humbled by such words, but it’s clear that he takes pride in it, too.

He talks about being at a Thursday night game with his family and watching Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin come down off the TV set and "bowing down to my son and telling my son what type of player I was on and off the field."

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He talks about being out in public and having fans come up to him, "remembering how I played the game and telling my children, my family, how I impacted their enjoyment of the game."

Williams left the game the way he came in: quietly. After the 2004 season, there was no retirement press conference, no look-at-me goodbye. He simply blended into the St. Louis community with his wife, Tracy, and their four children.

"I’m not a good exit person as it relates to being able to say, ‘I gotta go now,’" he mused this week. "For some reason that’s something I’ve always struggled with. The script I imagined was: I’ll turn the page. I envisioned, when we’re finished, we walk away and go into the next phase."

He stayed in St. Louis because "we really enjoyed the St. Louis community. It’s one of the more philanthropic communities we’ve ever been a part of."

And there was the opportunity to start the Spirit of the Lord Family Church, where Williams is the pastor and is able to use "the gift of communication God gave me" — a gift he also has used frequently in his work with the NFL Legends program and while speaking at the NFL Rookie Symposium.

Williams has given a lot of Sunday sermons, so Saturday night in Canton should be a snap. That’s not to say it won’t be emotional.

"It will," Williams says. "I get so many questions about the speech and whether it will be difficult. No, it won’t be. It will be authentic. It will capture the gratitude that I have for my parents, my wife, my children and all the way through the many people that played a huge part in me becoming the person and player I became."

He readily acknowledges that the gold jacket "isn’t big enough for all of us to fit in," but he practically promises his talk won’t be a marathon.

"It will be succinct," he said, "while making sure that if I encourage people, it would be to go to the grave empty. I almost went to the grave not ever playing football in college. So there’s a theme — to tell people, ‘Don’t go to the grave empty.’"

Now, there’s the true measure of Aeneas Williams: He can talk about death and make it inspirational.

Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490 in St. Louis.