Editor’s Note: Aeneas Williams was selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the NFL Draft on April 21, 1991. I wrote the following story while living in St. Louis 23 years later after Williams was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It was late Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, and Aeneas Williams was feeling “jittery.” The 46-person Hall of Fame selection committee was sequestered in a ballroom of the Sheraton New York discussing and voting on this year’s class that will be enshrined on Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio.
A finalist for the third consecutive year, Williams knew the time was coming where his phone would either ring with great news or remain silent and he would know he’d have to wait at least another year.
With this year’s Hall of Fame class to be introduced at the NFL Honors show, Hall executives had worked to get the 17 finalists to New York, knowing that at least 10 modern-day candidates and possibly the two seniors nominees would be left staring at a phone that wouldn’t ring.
“I couldn’t take it any longer, just sitting in a hotel room, waiting,” Williams would say later that evening. “So, my wife (Tracy) and I went out to walk around and we ended up in a shoe store.”
It was there that the call came. It took seconds for the religious Williams, who is a pastor at a church in St. Louis, to react.
“My wife and I went immediately to our knees praying, and we couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “The emotions were overwhelming.”
A few hours later, after being announced during the show and speaking at a press conference, he joined me and Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio, and he was beaming like a Cheshire cat. It would probably be days before the huge smile he wore would be wiped off his face. Maybe longer.
Not bad for a guy that walked on at Southern University after his sophomore season, and eventually became a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. He played 10 seasons for the Cardinals and four for the Rams, compiling seven Pro Bowls and four All-Pro selections, despite the fact Arizona had only one playoff season.
Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin played against Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson and Darrell Green, all of whom were contemporaries of Williams. Irvin said he has played against all four, but there were more battles with Williams when those teams were in the same division. Irvin noted that Williams was every bit the player as the other three, who were all on the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s. Williams was also named to that All-Decade team, and now he joins the other three in the Hall of Fame.
The numbers were obvious during a career in which he had more interceptions than Sanders and scored 12 defensive touchdowns, nine on interceptions. But it was his work ethic that was legendary.
Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis coached Williams in Arizona, and also was the Bears’ linebackers coach when Mike Singletary played in Chicago. McGinnis said he thought he would never see another player with the work ethic and practice intensity of Singletary – until he coached Williams.
It was that work ethic that impressed former Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, who was entering his third NFL season when Williams came to St. Louis in 2001.
In a recent radio interview, Holt said, "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 there was more. "More important,” Holt said, “is 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 every-day 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."
When Williams walked away from the game after the 2004 season, he did so quietly. There was no retirement press conference. He never had a look-at-me day that would have put a wrap on a great career.
He just slipped into daily life in the St. Louis community with his wife and kids. For a couple of years, many didn't even know he had remained in St. Louis. He became a pastor, and only because he wanted to spread the word about his church did he become more public in his involvement in the local community.
In the last few years that he has been a finalist, he has often appeared on the radio with me as well as Bernie Miklasz and others. At a time when several Hall-of-Fame candidates will often wonder why they haven't been selected, and say they just don't get it, Williams is different. He always thanks me, Bernie and Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic for supporting him with our words to the selection committee and thanks the entire committee for even considering him, while adding how humbled he feels to be included among such a great group of candidates.
There is no one more deserving of this honor on many levels than Aeneas Williams. I have never felt more gratified for having in my own small way let the committee know not only what kind of player Williams was, but also the type of man he is.
There is no doubt that the character embodied by Williams is what made him the player he was, the man he is and now the Hall of Famer he will officially be in August when his bust takes its place among the greats of pro football.
St. Louis should be proud of its adopted son.