Pastor Aeneas Williams stood in front of a congregation unlike any other he has spoken to before, inside a sanctuary that has defined his life, and he expounded about a religion whose followers are as devout as any other.
It wasn’t a Sunday morning in his St. Louis church. It was a Saturday night in Canton, Ohio.
In front of thousands of football fans -- his congregants -- who gathered in a small, Northeast Ohio town to pay tribute to a sport’s cathedral, Williams preached about football, faith and family during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.
For 25 minutes, the devout Christian pontificated about the Church of Football.
It was everything you'd expect from Williams, who spent 10 of his 14 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with the St. Louis Rams. He was thankful and humbled. He addressed hot-button issues, and he showed that the fire hasn't disappeared 10 years after he last played. And it was all done with a flair only those accustomed to speaking in front of the masses can provide. He promised he'd cry, but only sweat dripped down his cheeks. His impassioned speech had two themes, both of which he has tried to live in his life: "Begin with the end in mind and die empty." He tried to stay away from the morbid, but he pointed out that he was inductee No. 287 and his last name put him on the bottom of every list of this year’s inductees -- a symbol for his road to the Hall.
He started at the beginning of his football life, which began in a park in New Orleans, and went through his journey to the Hall of Fame, which didn't truly begin until a week before the season began at Southern University. It was then that Williams decided to walk on. Although, as he explained, nothing came easy to him -- speed, winning in Arizona, his acceptance into the Hall of Fame -- Williams was a natural talent whose dedication helped him become great. He thanked Gill Byrd, the former San Diego cornerback, whose help Williams solicited. But after spending time with Byrd and his wife, Williams didn’t become just a better cornerback. He credited Byrd for teaching him how to be a good husband and father while playing in the NFL.
As to be expected from a Williams speech, faith played a large part.
He talked about taking signs from God as early as his childhood, when Williams, as a running back in the 95-pound league, was crushed by a 110-pound player. It was then that Williams switched to defense. He also said his faith helped lead him to walk on at Southern.
Williams' competitive edge shined bright throughout his speech. It was obvious he still basks in having shut down Michael Irvin in the 1999 playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, the same one the Cardinals won in an upset. Williams joked that he was covering Irvin so closely that if Irvin went to the bathroom, "I had to go flush it."
His speech began by supporting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for having to make tough decisions so the game could continue. He joked about getting a middle finger salute from an entire section of New York Giants fans when he'd come out for warm-ups at old Giants Stadium. He noted that his former defensive backs coach, Rob Ryan, put him on Aeneas Island long before Revis Island was discovered. Williams said his work ethic was established in the aisles of the Superdome, where he sold popcorn, peanuts and soda as a kid.
By the time Williams finished, he still hadn't cried, but he was leading the stadium of fans in chants and cheers. Williams looked comfortable on a pulpit, behind a lectern, talking with his hands, preaching the gospel of football.
He looked at home in the Hall of Fame.