CANTON, Ohio — Even after letting his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame soak in for three weeks, Aeneas Williams was still awestruck by the magnitude of the news he received in early February.
Williams, a New Orleans native who starred at Southern University in the late 1980s and went on to an exceptional 14-year career with the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, couldn’t help but think about the company he was going to join.
Doing his research in the ensuing weeks, Williams modestly talked about how there were only 280 Hall of Famers — a total that reached 287 after he and six others were enshrined Saturday night in Fawcett Stadium, just a long touchdown pass from the Pro Football Hall of Fame building.
Williams quickly pointed out that elite group comes from the more than 36,000 men who have played at least one game in the 90-plus-year history of pro football.
“That’s truly amazing,” Williams said that day, repeating the number 280 several times.
In this case, the numbers that really should matter are 2, 2 and 24.
The first number signifies that Williams is the second player from Southern, joining cornerback Mel Blount, to be elected to the Hall.
The second is for Williams becoming only the second New Orleans-born player to go in, joining Marshall Faulk — whom Williams played with at the end of his career with the Rams.
The 24 is for the number of defensive backs who now have a bronze bust in the Hall of Fame — a select group to be sure.
How Williams, a walk-on at Southern, earned his spot was a testament to his work ethic, his willingness to improve and an endless quest to learn whatever he could, and from whomever he could, to better himself.
That’s not an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination.
After coming up with six interceptions as a rookie and picking off three more in his second season, Williams believed that being good wasn’t good enough.
Near the end of that second year, he approached San Diego Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd after a game and asked for help from one of the league’s best cover men of the 1980s. It was a request that no doubt played a role in helping him get to the Hall.
“I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Byrd, can I get your phone number?’ ” Williams said recently. “I called and asked him if I could fly out to San Diego in the offseason so he could help me learn how to play the cornerback position at an All-Pro level.”
After initially being taken aback, Byrd agreed to give Williams a few tips.
“I always wanted to serve younger players, and Aeneas asked me, ‘Can I call you and come to work out with you in the summer?’ ” said Byrd, who is now the secondary coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “That was very unusual. There were guys I played with for five or six years that never asked me to do that.”
Byrd obliged, and Williams and his wife, Tracy, would spend six weeks every offseason with Byrd and his family — which included a youngster named Jairus who would later become a star defensive back with the Buffalo Bills and is now with the Saints.
The first thing Gill Byrd asked Williams about was his philosophy as a cornerback, to which Williams quickly replied, “Don’t get beat.”
“He said, ‘That’s exactly why cornerbacks get beat,’ ” said Williams, who noted that Byrd explained defenders usually never look back when the ball is in the air.
“That’s because,” Williams added, “most of a cornerback’s life, he’s been taught to not get beat. He’s so worried about getting beat, he doesn’t realize the opportunity he has to make a play. His philosophy was the defender had just as much opportunity to catch the ball as the receiver.”
It was the first of many lessons learned by Williams, who didn’t mind seeking out anyone who could provide him with some knowledge.
“He told me he was going to teach me how to slow the game down,” Williams said. “So he literally took me on the practice field and taught me the drills that receivers, tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks work on. He showed me that and, literally, the game slowed down. That was a month and a half every offseason, just him teaching me how to be successful.”
Of course, Byrd knows Williams already had a head start on that before they became the best of friends.
“I knew he was good, and I knew he had the ability to get to Canton,” Byrd said. “He just wanted to be the best at his position, and I’m proud that he’s going into the Hall. To be on losing teams and still go to Pro Bowls, that’s a special guy.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.