PHOENIX (AP) — Aeneas Williams spent most of his NFL career on bad teams.
But that didn’t prevent him from pursuing excellence, becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the league and earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In his 10 seasons with Arizona, the Cardinals had one winning season.
But despite that, he either led or shared the NFL lead in interceptions three times and made six Pro Bowls. Williams never missed a game and started all but one. He had a streak of 157 consecutive starts.
And he never let the poor play around him affect his performance.
“Just refuse to become a loser even though we weren’t winning a whole lot of games,” Williams said.
He finally made it to the playoffs with the Cardinals in 1998, then intercepted two passes as Arizona stunned the Cowboys in Dallas in the first round.
“I really saw the makings of what the current (Cardinals) organization is experiencing now,” Williams said.
But the Cardinals slipped back into their inept ways and, after a decade in the desert, Williams left to join a winner.
On draft day of 2001, the Cardinals traded him to the St. Louis Rams for draft picks.
That year, for just the second time in his career, Williams was in the playoffs.
He started at left cornerback, helping transform a woeful Rams defense, and St. Louis reached the Super Bowl, where it lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 20-17.
Williams was moved to safety in the final years of his career, retiring in 2004, leaving a trail of admiration.
“Everything he did, whether it was on or off the field, he did with a tremendous amount of honesty and dignity,” said Dave McGinnis, who coached Williams in Arizona.
Williams had 55 interceptions, including eight seasons with at least four. He made the Hall of Fame in his third time as a finalist.
Now a pastor in St. Louis, Williams will be introduced at the Hall of Fame induction by his father, Lawrence, whom he credits for molding him into the man he became.
“I didn’t have to look outside my home for a hero,” Williams said.
Growing up in a strict but loving family in New Orleans, Williams said school was more important to his parents than athletics.
He played football in high school, but didn’t draw any interest from colleges. So he followed his older brother to Southern University.
As a junior, he decided to join the football team as a walk-on. The following season, he led the Southwestern Athletic Conference with seven interceptions.
Williams still remembers, and often repeats, what Southern defensive coordinator Percy Duhe told the New Orleans newspaper, that “Aeneas is a good player, but I don’t think he’ll ever go pro because he runs a 4.6 (second) 40-yard dash.”
Williams said he joined the track team that year and worked with a fellow football player to improve his speed.
“I ran a 4.28 for scouts that spring,” he said.
The then-Phoenix Cardinals picked him in the third round.
While the team lost year after year, Williams said he bears no animosity.
Quite the opposite.
“I can say my time in Arizona was fulfilling, rewarding,” he said. “I’d never trade it for the world.”
McGinnis, who was the defensive coordinator, then head coach, at Arizona, said every game plan would be developed around Williams.
“I pulled him aside one day and told him ‘Having you play corner reminds me of having Mike Singletary at linebacker,'” McGinnis said.
Williams and Singletary are two of six Hall of Famers McGinnis has coached.
“The one common thread that they all possessed is they elevated the play of everybody around them,” McGinnis said. “They had a different presence.”
Williams said he was overwhelmed by the congratulations he received from former teammates and others who had been part of his football life.
“I never wanted to just be a great player on the field,” he said. “I wanted people to experience joy off the field as well.”
He carries with him a congratulatory note he got from Jay Zygmunt, former Rams president of football operations.
Williams read it aloud, his voice cracking a bit with emotion.
Zygmunt started by saying he had been associated with many great players in his 27 years with the Rams.
“You’re at the top of that list with your incredible play,” Williams read. “But your exemplary life as a man even surpasses your performance and accomplishments on the field.”
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