Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin loved to dominate cornerbacks. He attacked their weakness to beat them, their strengths to break them. It worked all the time.
Then he lined up opposite Aeneas Williams — the pride of Hollygrove, a rough neighborhood in New Orleans’ 17th Ward, and one of the most physical cornerbacks of the 1990s.
“I would bust him in his mouth, I face-masked him, I yanked his head — things that they would take me out of the league right now for,” Irvin said.
But Williams lined up in front of him on the next play, unfazed by Irvin’s mischief.
There was no breaking Williams, who, as one of 17 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists, will learn Saturday whether he makes this year’s final cut.
His play was too steady, his focus just as solid.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, his desire to reach his potential, fueled by his relationship with God, allowed him to earn individual accolades, even on losing teams with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals.
Later, with the St. Louis Rams, he played in Super Bowl XXXVI, losing 20-17 to New England at the Superdome.
Williams wasn’t born with elite physical gifts. He nurtured his body and mind with the help of friends and mentors. They taught him how to be a better cornerback — lessons that also shaped his life as a husband and father, and later as a pastor and businessman.
“True professional,” former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner said. “One of those guys that I just think defined a position in his era.”
Williams still made mistakes on the field, but as he proved in one of his early encounters with Irvin, he knew how to get over a bad play. Sometimes, a receiver is going to get his hands on you — maybe even catch a touchdown pass. The key is to get back in his face.
“I never played for the money,” said Williams, who was with the Cardinals from 1991-2000 and the Rams from 2001-04. “I always had this burning flame, and I still have it today — just in another direction. I wanted to be the best I could be individually and as a team the best we could be.”
If voted in, Williams would join Marshall Faulk and Steve Van Buren as locals enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Williams almost did not play football after he graduated from Fortier High School. His story is as much a tale of determination and dedication as it is a young man finding himself.
Williams followed his older brother, Achilles, to Southern, where he sought a career in accounting. He also was active in student government. People from New Orleans always asked him about walking on to Southern’s football team, but he had no interest.
Then Achilles graduated, but not before giving Aeneas — who was on pace to graduate in three years — the advice that started his progression back to football: “Little brother, slow down. You’re going to be working for the rest of your life.”
Aeneas still had an inner desire to hit people, so he decided to walk on. He didn’t tell family and friends until he made the traveling squad. His start was sloppy, as it might be for anyone who spent two years away from the game. But by the fifth game of the season, he was a starter.
He was always searching for credible mentors. At Southern, teammate Brian Thomas, also from New Orleans, helped him improve his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.6 to 4.28. The following season, Williams had 11 interceptions, tying him for the national lead.
Gill Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, not only showed him how to be better at his craft, but during the time he and wife Tracy spent as guests at Byrd’s house, he showed them how to raise a family while balancing an NFL career. Williams said he also received guidance from Hall of Famers Michael Haynes, Ken Houston and Ronnie Lott.
Williams wanted to know what type of work ethic was necessary to become one of the game’s greats — and to compete against many of the greats. His Sundays were busy defending the opponents’ best receivers, from Jerry Rice and Cris Carter to Irvin and Andre Reed. His logged 55 interceptions in his 14-year career, leading the league twice (six in 1991, nine in ’94).
He was named to the NFL’s team of the 1990s along with his contemporaries — Darrell Green, Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders, all of whom are enshrined in Canton.
“I’m just excited about it,” Williams said. “It’s truly an honor to be in the discussion with some of the best that have ever played in the National Football League. The best part is that my work is already done.”
Finalists must receive at least 80 percent approval from the selection committee. For Irvin, there’s no question that Williams belongs.
“Not a step below, not a step on the side,” Irvin said. “Right with those guys.”