Pro Football Hall of Famers are tackling youth violence in nationwide program

Pro Football Hall of Famers are tackling youth violence in nationwide program

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Story Courtesy of ABC 7 WJLA

ST. LOUIS,Mo. (SBG) — Pro Football Hall of Famers may be known for their legendary work on the field. But now they're taking the lessons they learned on the gridiron to at-risk kids, hoping to help them overcome adversity.

Aeneas Williams isn’t known for throwing passes. He spent his career trying to block them. But these days the former NFL cornerback and free safety is intercepting something much more important than footballs: kids at risk for violence in their communities. With a recent study showing youth gun violence dramatically on the rise across the country, the program has taken on an importance relevance.

Williams, now a pastor at his church in St. Louis, is tackling the problem with the same intensity he brought to the gridiron. Football was never just a game; he explained during an interview with Spotlight on America. It was God's purpose, he says, that drove him to walk-on at Southern University as a junior, just a few months shy of graduating early with a degree in accounting. Williams hated numbers though, except the ones on the field, where he went on to play 14 seasons in the NFL, first with the Arizona Cardinals and then the St. Louis Rams.

In 2014, Williams was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of less than 350 men to ever make the cut. The man who helped him into that gold jacket was his first mentor, his dad. Williams gets emotional talking about the influence and structure his parents brought to his life.

"I don’t know where I would have been during those teenage years without my folks, because everybody doesn’t have that," Williams said. "When you’re teenagers, man, you’re trying to figure out life."

Williams remembers the struggle long before his name was sewn inside a jacket reserved for only the best in the game. He tells us he had it good, relatively speaking. He grew up middle class in the 17th Ward of New Orleans, with a park near home functioning as a safety net from the violence that impacted his world. Still, Williams says, he knew teammates who were shot and killed. And he recalls a friend's brother being executed on the front porch of a home during a Mother's Day celebration in his youth. As a teenager, fear motivated him to carry a gun, something his family and friends were never aware of. It was about protection and safety, he says.

"It causes you to be somewhat callous, where deaths are not as bad as it is. It doesn’t register," Williams explained. "It becomes the norm."

That’s the mindset Williams wants to change in today’s kids. He reaches out, not just at The Spirit Church, where he preaches with his wife of more than 20 years, Tracy. The effort also extends to youth summits that team him up with another Pro Hall of Famer, Darrell Green, of the Washington Redskins. The pair are part of a program called "Strong Youth, Strong Communities," run in partnership with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Centene Corporation. The summits draft former pros to share the lessons they learned as athletes to empower kids and help them overcome adversity.

The program brings together educators, law enforcement and organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. It's reached thousands of kids in more than 20 cities so far, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Las Vegas, Nashville and Cincinnati. The initiative features famous speakers but keeps the focus on supporting children after the event thanks to stakeholders in each community they visit.

In St. Louis, the summit was attended by more than 1,500 children from the surrounding area. It featured some of the most recognizable faces in professional sports. But what they handed out was invisible: hope. To mentors like Aeneas Williams, it's worth more than any victory on the field.

"When someone tells you they have hope for one more day, I don’t want to do anything else," Williams said. "That’s our responsibility."

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