Aeneas Williams played 14 years as a starting defensive back in the NFL, reaching the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams after the 2001 season.
However, as Williams gets ready to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio, he looks back with vivid special memories of the Alcee Fortier High School team in New Orleans on which he played, the 1985 season in particular.
“My reflections are of the tremendous amount of talent that I played with at Fortier and the great coaching staff we had,” said Williams, who was the captain of the defense as a senior during the ’85 season. “One of my teammates, Kirk Davenport, was one of the best players to come out of New Orleans; he and (St. Augustine’s) Leroy Hoard were voted Metro co-Players of the Year.”
The Tarpons went 10-0 during the ’85 regular season, winning the District 10-4A championship. They finished 12-1 and advanced to the Class 4A semifinals.
Coach Alfred Levy said that with all of the talented players on that team, there’s no doubt Williams, who was selected all-district as a strong safety, left his mark.
“Aeneas brought toughness to that team,” Levy said. “He was a smart player, and he really brought it with his hitting. I remember that he was always smiling, no matter what. He was like a silent assassin.”
For Williams, the time at Fortier, he said, were years of nurturing as a player, student and person. The seeds had already been planted by his parents, Lawrence and Lillian Williams, who stressed discipline and academics, and during his years in winning programs at Harrell Park and Woodson Junior High.
“Woodson was so rich in talent, I hardly played,” Williams said. “Any skill I learned at Fortier was continued on from Harrell and Woodson, and that was toughness, what it took to be tenacious as relates to being a leader and setting the tone as the type of player you want to be known as.”
He had examples in older brothers Malcolm, who was senior class president in 1980, and Achilles, a 1984 graduate. Both were student-athletes at Fortier. However, Williams also looked up to cornerbacks Kevin Lewis and Maurice Hurst, who had played at Woodson, following them to Fortier.
Lewis, who said he remembers Williams as “a scrappy kid” as a Fortier sophomore, was two years ahead of Williams and Hurst one year. Lewis and Hurst both went on to the NFL after playing at Northwestern State and Southern, respectively.
“They were leaders, and I learned from them and the example they set,” Williams said. “My senior year, I became a leader.”
Mostly by example. Levy remembers a pivotal game against Brother Martin in which Williams made an impact in more ways than one.
“He walked up to the line of scrimmage, and Brother Martin handed the ball off,” Levy said. “Aeneas made a huge hit, and it just gave our whole team a big lift. A lot of people didn’t think we’d win that game, but we did.”
“They had a vicious running attack, and their philosophy was that ‘We are going to impose our will on you with our running game,’ ” he said. “I do remember meeting that force with force and making plays that set the tone.”
Orlando Dugars, a member of Williams’ “Rat Pack” as a player in the secondary and a senior leader on the Tarpons, said he thinks Williams’ best game came against Booker T. Washington, a district nemesis and rival for the Woodson kids as their neighborhood high school.
“He was just relentless, all over the place, making plays in the secondary, at the line of scrimmage,” said Dugars, who has been friends with Williams since kindergarten. “He was very determined, the defense played great, and we finally beat Booker T.”
Longtime New Orleans public high school coach Wayne Reese, who had rebuilt Washington, said he remembers Williams, along with Davenport, having an impact.
“I knew (Williams),” Reese said. “I’d tried to get him to come to Washington from Woodson. He was a good player who hadn’t blossomed yet.”
As in the games, Williams’ leadership came across loud and clear during another confrontation that got physical, and it also was important for the team.
“There was a locker-room incident involving a cornerback who was undisciplined and threatening to cause problems,” Levy said. “That was the end of that.”
That took place just before the playoffs began, Williams said.
The Tarpons continued their march, winning their first two games. That put Fortier against perennial power John Ehret and quarterback Leonard Valentine, a top college recruit.
“We went toe-to-toe with them, but they beat us in triple overtime and wound up winning the whole thing,” Williams said. “I’ll always remember how, as we gained momentum with our winning, some of our games were played at the Superdome, which was kind of special.”
Levy said Williams’ leadership, status as a top student and diligence made him special. That was the result of his upbringing. Williams, now an ordained minister in St. Louis, said Lewis played a role that impacted his life in a key way.
“Kevin Lewis was all-district as a football player and a basketball player, and he was the valedictorian of his class,” Williams said. “But the biggest impact Kevin made on me was spiritually. I went to church growing up, but I never understood how it connected to everyday life. So, I didn’t have a relationship with Christ, but I knew Kevin did.
“He showed me you could be great in academics, as well as a great athlete and a great person and serve Christ and not be a weak person and be strong and be a leader.”
Williams’ senior year ended without a football scholarship offer, although he said he could have attended Ivy League school Dartmouth and played. Williams said he wasn’t as fast as he later would become.
“I didn’t think I was that good,” said Williams, who said he ran 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Fortier. “I certainly wasn’t the cornerback that Kevin and Maurice were.”
Achilles Williams said Aeneas “just flew under the radar.”
“Aeneas had physical gifts, always understood the mental aspect of the game in whatever sport he played, and you weren’t going to outwork him,” said Achilles, a certified public accountant. “But in our house, not getting a football scholarship was no big deal. My father had gone to Southern, and all along it was expected that he would follow me there, excel academically and become successful as a professional.”
What happened next, Reese said, is an example for all high school student athletes.
“What I like about his story is that all along and into high school, he was always into his books,” said Reese, who will be in Canton to see former Tennessee State teammate Claude Humphrey enshrined along with Williams. “That helped create an opportunity for him. Without academics, he wouldn’t have been in position to take advantage of the opportunity he got and continue on to who he eventually would become.”