Advocate sportswriter
Published: Jul 23, 2008

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When he wanted to better himself as a cornerback, Aeneas Williams sought out the best and relentlessly pursued them. Chased after them as if the knowledge they carried were the ball.

He flew to Houston at his own expense to meet with Pro Football Hall of Famer Kenny Houston. He tracked down former Oakland Raider Marcus Haynes through his post-football employer, Callaway Golf, just to get a few words from the nine-time Pro Bowler over the telephone. Each summer for years he would train with former San Diego Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd, lessons soaked in sweat and stamped into his consciousness.

“He’d say, ‘Aeneas, what is your mindset on how to play the cornerback position?’” Williams recalled Byrd asking him. “I said, ‘Man, I can’t get beat.’ He said, ‘We have to change that mindset. It’s not that you can’t get beat, it’s that they have to beat you. You’re standing in front of them.’ So just that one little tidbit helped changed my whole mindset as a cornerback.”

One little thing. One morsel of information. One guiding principle. It’s what helped turn Williams from a walk-on cornerback at Southern into a 14-year NFL veteran, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection with the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

Before this year ends, Williams will have been inducted into both the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor. Before long, Canton will surely come calling; the five-year waiting period for hall of fame induction ends with the fifth anniversary of Williams’ retirement in 2009.

Williams never sought out honors or glory. He figured accolades would gravitate toward him if he made himself into the best player he could.

“You command respect by how you do things,” Williams said. “Excellence attracts. Anyone can be average.”

It was his mantra as a player at Southern and in the NFL. It remains his message today.

The audience could be the bible study group in the church he founded last October in the basement of his home near St. Louis, The Spirit of the Lord Family Church. Or it could be the players assembled before him as Williams delivered the keynote address as SWAC football media day.

When he was a player, Williams took part in two SWAC preseason media tours. Usually, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson would take the podium as Williams did Tuesday.

One of Williams’ first mentors. It was perhaps one of the things that led Williams to the pulpit.

“I got inspired to talk in front of people at these luncheons from coach Eddie Robinson,” Williams said. “I learned excellence happens every day. Excellence is a habit.”

He implored the players to find mentors as he did.

“A mentor is not your friend,” he said. “A friend will love you the way you are. A mentor will love you too much to let you stay the way you are.”

One brief message. Perhaps for those SWAC players a lifelong lesson learned.