When All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams takes the stage on Saturday night, it’s clear that his speech will be one of the most awe-inspiring speeches told by a Hall of Fame inductee.
That’s not to discredit any of the prior Hall of Fame inductees—because their speeches had just as much meaning as Williams’ will have—but Williams’ journey to the NFL was truly unique.
It was unique in the sense that Williams’ priorities went way beyond football. Despite the fact Williams was an unheralded player at Fortier High School in New Orleans, he always knew there was more to life than football.
That doesn’t mean Williams didn’t enjoy football—he certainly did—but when the time came to play college football, there wasn’t a single offer that came his way.
So, what did Williams decide to do? He made the decision to put football behind him and focus on his education at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Choosing to attend Southern University as a student was an easy choice. His brother Achilles had attend Southern before him, which meant Williams had an idea of what life would be like in Baton Rouge.
Not to mention, there wasn’t any pressure from his family to excel as a football player. In the Williams household, sports weren’t an emphasis. According to Terrance Harris of NOLA.com, the three things that were important were: education, accountability and character.
“We emphasized we want you to succeed academically; we don't care about nothing else,” said Lillian Williams, via Harris. ”You have to make certain grades and that is all that was acceptable.”
In turn, Williams took his mother’s mindset and applied it to his academic career at Southern. Moreover, he found a way to appreciate his life as a student. He was an accounting major from the start and eventually branched off into student government as well.
Nonetheless, Williams still wasn’t satisfied with who he was and what he had accomplished as a student. He was searching for more and wanted more purpose in his own life.
Fortunately for Williams, he found the purpose he was yearning for when he went through a spiritual awakening. Here’s what Williams told Harris on July 29: “It was around that time I started trying to figure out who Aeneas was. That’s when God started dealing with my heart to realize that everybody's life had a purpose.”
After he made that realization, Williams felt the urge to start playing football again. But at the time, that was easier said than done considering he had to walk on and try to make Southern’s travel squad.
Coincidentally enough, as a junior, Williams eventually made the team as a walk-on. To no one’s surprise, Williams hit the ground running. Five games into his first season with the team, he found his way into the defensive lineup. He didn’t have a specific position at first, so he played linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Yet, Williams’ time as a quote, unquote rover was short-lived. Toward the end of his first season with the Jaguars, one of Southern’s starting cornerbacks had to leave the game due to a family tragedy. And the rest ended up being history.
A year later, Williams earned All-American honors and went on to tie the NCAA Division I-AA record for the most interceptions. Then, two years later, he was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 1991 NFL draft. Not bad for someone who had originally decided to be a student.
Nevertheless, Williams quickly found out that success was hard to come by in the NFL. Even though he had garnered 11 interceptions in his first three seasons in the league, the 200-pound corner didn’t make his first Pro Bowl appearance until 1994.
The good news is once Williams made his first Pro Bowl, prosperity found him on an annual basis after that. As a member of the Cardinals (1991-2000), he tallied six Pro Bowls, four All-Pro selections and was named to Arizona’s Ring of Honor in 2008.
Without a doubt, he left a lasting impression in the desert. Cardinals fans will always remember Williams since he played the game the right way in spite of his fierce attitude. Additionally, Cardinals fans will tell you Williams was one of the greatest defensive backs of all time.
The same goes for St. Louis Rams fans. When Williams was traded to the Rams in 2001 for two draft picks (second and fourth rounds), St. Louis’ defense immediately took off.
In fact, Williams’ presence put the Rams defense over the top.
In his first season with the Rams, Williams notched 72 combined tackles, four interceptions, 14 passes defended, two touchdowns and an All-Pro selection.
Following his eye-opening regular-season numbers in 2001, Williams made a huge impact in the playoffs as well. In three playoff games for the Rams that year, he intercepted three passes and scored two touchdowns.
St. Louis failed to win the Super Bowl in 2001, yet that didn’t change the fact that Williams’ high level of play continued. Over the course of the next three seasons with the Rams, he snagged five interceptions, recorded 119 tackles, scored one touchdown and recovered five fumbles.
Without a doubt, St. Louis’ trade for Williams paid off. In total, he helped the Rams win 41 regular-season games and two playoffs game. That’s an impressive feat based on the fact he was 33 years old when he first arrived in St. Louis.
However, as any football player knows, you can’t play the game you love forever. That realization hit Williams during the 2005 offseason, which is when he decided to hang up his cleats after 14 seasons in the NFL.
With that being said, Williams’ lengthy career will go down as one of the most prolific careers in league history for a defensive back. In 14 seasons, he scored 12 defensive touchdowns (nine interceptions and three fumbles recovered), registered 55 interceptions, recovered 23 fumbles, gained 1,075 defensive return yards and was a Pro Bowler eight times.
But that was only half of Williams’ career. The other half fell in line with his character and the way he treated other people.
Here’s what his former teammate, Kurt Warner, told reporters last Sunday, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “You guys know: He’s a better person than he was a football player. And he’s a Hall of Fame football player.”
Clearly, Warner’s statement meant a lot to Williams, but a text from former Rams executive Jay Zygmunt brought a wave of emotion over Williams, via Thomas:
In my 27 years with the Rams I was blessed to be around many great players. You are at the top of that list with your incredible play. But your exemplary life as a man even surpasses your performance and accomplishments on the field. You’re truly special and embody the essence of the ultimate Hall of Famer. Enjoy this well-deserved recognition and treasure your enshrinement weekend. All the best.
As you can see, Williams’ influence on people was profound. He not only left a lasting impression on the field, but he left a lasting impression off of it as well.
A tip of the hat to Williams on a storied career. He is one the few players in league history who can confidently say they were a Hall of Famer on and off the field.