Stories from the Pro Football Hall of Fame Archives

By: Jon Kendle

Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.

Aeneas Williams Traveled Unusual Path to Hall


May 04, 2021

 

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A trend might be catching on in the world of college football. This past week as the pro football world geared up for the National Football League draft, a report surfaced that Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk was in discussions to become Southern University’s new head coach.

While nothing has been confirmed, if Faulk does except the role, he would follow Deion Sanders as the second Hall of Fame player named head coach of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) this year.

While neither Sanders nor Faulk attended an HBCU, 34 Pro Football Hall of Famers have, and three – Mel Blount, Harold Carmichael and Aeneas Williams – attended Southern University.

Williams, a Class of 2014 enshrinee, traveled an interesting path to Canton.

The elite defensive back didn’t play college football as a freshman or sophomore. Williams instead focused on his academics and walked on Southern’s football team in 1988. He became a starter by the fifth game of his first season and would go on to rank second in Division I-AA with seven interceptions as a junior and tied for the national lead in 1990 with 11.

Williams registered 17 passes defensed as a senior and blocked three kicks.

As tough as the come, Williams was also a willing tackler from his cornerback position. He accumulated more than 200 tackles in three seasons. During his senior season, he was named to the All-Southwest Athletic Conference’s first team.

In total, Williams intercepted 20 passes for 335 yards in three seasons at Southern and returned two for touchdowns.

He was the Phoenix Cardinals’ third-round pick (59th player overall) in 1991.

There were five pure cornerbacks drafted before Williams that year – Bruce Pickens, Todd Lyght, Vinnie Clark, Darryll Lewis and Jerome Henderson – and 10 total defensive backs.

Williams would go on to lead the NFC in interceptions during his rookie season with six and as a result was named the 1991 NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. That season, he started 15 games, and his final two interceptions that year came against Hall of Famer John Elway on Dec. 15, 1991.

His first occurred late in the third quarter with the Denver Broncos leading 17-13 and driving toward midfield. The turnover led to a field goal to make it a one-point game. On the ensuing Broncos possession early in the fourth quarter, Williams once again picked off Elway, returning it 23 yards to set up the go-ahead field goal. 

“My motivation was always, and still is, to reach my potential,” Williams once said. “I contacted Hall of Fame guys in my second and third year in the league; I took time to see them and talk to them about how to have a great corner mindset … I just praise God and thank my trainers and everybody who played a part in helping me to get physically and mentally ready to play.” 

After 10 season with the Cardinals, Williams was traded to the St. Louis Rams on a draft-day exchange for a 2001 second-round pick. In four seasons with the Rams, Williams started 51 games, intercepted nine passes and scored four touchdowns (one on a fumble return) in the regular season.

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Williams also played a large part in the Rams’ Super Bowl XXXVI run. In the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs against Green Bay, he set an NFL postseason record with two interception returns for touchdowns in the same game with a 29-yard return in the first quarter to put the Rams up 7-0 and a 32-yard return in the fourth quarter. The Rams won that game 45-17.

Williams’ nine career interception returns for a touchdown were tied for second all-time with Hall of Famers Ken Houston and Deion Sanders at the time of his retirement. Only Hall of Famer Rod Woodson had more interception returns for a touchdown with 12 during his career.

In all, he recorded 61 career interceptions, including the playoffs, during his 14-year NFL career. The total came via passes thrown by 41 different quarterbacks, three of whom are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Williams’ biggest victim was Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who was robbed six times, one of which he returned for a TD. Two of those interceptions occurred in the 1998 NFC Wild Card Game, Williams’ first career postseason appearance. Against the heavily favored Cowboys, the cornerback held Hall of Famer Michael Irvin to four receptions for 32 yards, intercepted two balls thrown toward Irvin, had two passes defensed and two tackles. The strong effort helped the Arizona Cardinals dismantle the Cowboys 20-7.

His strong play throughout his career, especially against Irvin, helped secure his legacy as a pro football immortal.