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ESPN The Magazine: Saving Grace
ESPN The Magazine

As the Super Bowl looms on the horizon, The Magazine delves into NFL Nation -- the world's only sports superpower. Here's a look at the Minister of Defense.

You stand there in utter disbelief as Aeneas Williams approaches and all the people around you immediately fall to their knees. Congregated in the north end zone of the Dome in St. Louis on Dec.30, just after the Rams have defeated the Colts to clinch the NFC West title, the faithful wait for Williams above the players’ tunnel. Williams pops up off the field, massages his NFC West Champions hat onto his head and bounces -- to the tune of “We Are the Champions” -- toward his sea of supporters. And when they see him coming, all of them -- kids and grown-ups, black and white, male and female -- drop to their knees and stretch their arms over the guard rail, hoping to touch him. Some catch a hand. Some brush his pads with the tips of their fingers. And as Williams disappears into the tunnel, shaking his head in a mixture of joy and disbelief at the scene, you hear a voice that may still be circling through those cement corridors today: “Thank you, Aeneas! Thank you for saving us!”

A few minutes later in the locker room, Rams linebacker London Fletcher says, “I’m telling you, the guy has a special aura to him. He has a special kind of glow. He’s one of those rare people you meet who you know right away is gonna have an impact on your life.”

The skeptic in you is piqued. You dig through Williams’ background and read how opponents refer to him as Clergy ... how in 1996 he passed up an offer from Jacksonville in order to stay loyal to the Arizona Cardinals ... how he has started 173 games in a row ... how he’s fourth among active players with 50 picks ... and how he’s a licensed minister who uses the Pacific Ocean to baptize players at the Pro Bowl. (“Maybe this year we’ll use the Jacuzzi,” he laughs while opening the Pro Bowl packet that’s just arrived from the league office.) Then, of course, there are the 21 points Williams accounted for -- 14 on two picks he returned for touchdowns, seven more after he forced and recovered an Antonio Freeman fumble -- in the Rams playoff win over Green Bay, and you understand where Fletcher may be coming from.

It’s 9 a.m. on his day off. Williams, 33, has already finished a workout and is sitting in the back row of the team’s darkened auditorium. He patiently answers questions, then turns the tables and begins to ask a few of his own -- about your college, your family, your job. Then, after a calm debate about religion, Williams hands over the phone number of his older brother, Achilles -- and leaves you wondering who in the family was a Trojan War buff.

Achilles Williams runs the nine car dealerships that Aeneas owns in their home state of Louisiana. Older brothers are always good for some serious dirt, right? Not Achilles. A pointed question is asked, and the phone goes dead silent for several seconds. “No,” he finally replies, “there are no flaws with Aeneas that I can think of.”

Really? Is it possible that one player -- even a seven-time Pro Bowl corner who gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to pray -- can be credited with the miraculous turnaround of the Rams defense? Is it possible that someone could be that good? Both on and off the field? Two words, you think to yourself: Eugene Robinson.

Even Rams head coach Mike Martz had his doubts. “You hear so many good things about Aeneas, it’s a little hard to believe,” says Martz, who lobbied Rams GM Charley Armey hard for the predraft trade that sent a second- and a fourth-round pick to Arizona for Williams. “His attitude, his leadership, his preparation, his play -- it all seemed a little too good to be true. Then he shows up and is actually better than that. He’s become to our defense what Marshall Faulk is to our offense -- the standard we all hold ourselves to.”

Setting standards is practically a way of life for Williams. Raised in New Orleans, he passed up an academic scholarship to Dartmouth to follow Achilles to nearby Southern U., where he made the dean’s list and became active in student government. Football? Not until his junior year, when -- just five days before the start of the season -- Williams decided to walk on. A month later, he was starting. A year after that, he led the nation with 11 picks and graduated with a degree in accounting. After the Cards took him in the third round of the 1991 draft, he tied for the NFC lead with six interceptions on his way to selection as the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 1994, he was selected for his first Pro Bowl.

Then, after wandering in the desert for a decade with the notoriously cheap Cardinals, Williams finally reached his breaking point: 10 seasons, 10 losses a year (on average), one playoff win. Williams was prepared to retire rather than play another down for the Cards. That was when St. Louis came calling.

“The difference in the two teams is like night and day for Aeneas,” says Achilles, who speaks daily with his brother. “It’s like a car dealer who’s happy to make the bills each month as opposed to one who maximizes every opportunity that comes along to be the best in the business.”

That second car dealer? That would be the Rams. Last off-season, St. Louis dumped eight starters and revamped a defense that gave up a league-worst 471 points in the 2000 season. Three moves proved especially critical in this process. First, Martz hired former Tampa assistant Lovie Smith to bring the Bucs ferocious, attacking-style D to St. Louis. Second, they dumped disruptive defensive end Kevin Carter on the Titans for an extra first-round pick, which mitigated the loss of the picks sent to the Cardinals for Williams. And finally, they landed their leader.

“One person can change a whole team,” Martz says. “Kevin Carter had the effect on this team in a negative way. Aeneas had it in a positive way. It was a huge swing.” (No kidding. Last year the Rams ranked 23rd in the NFL in fewest total yards allowed. This season, they jumped to third.)

Normal protocol in the NFL is to have an intern or a member of the personnel department go to the airport to meet new players coming to visit for the first time. But when Williams landed, both Smith and Martz were waiting for him, and they immediately dropped this on him: We want you to be the Marshall Faulk of our new defense. After dinner, Smith actually ran some clips of his old Bucs defense so there would be no confusion as to what he expected of Williams. The dinner and the movie were nice, but the Rams had him at “Faulk.”

“Something just went off in me that said, yes, I can do that,” says Williams, who was voted defensive captain of the Rams practically before the ink had dried on the contract. “I know in my heart that I hadn’t even come close to reaching my full potential, and here I saw a chance to do it. Besides, I love Lovie Smith. I really do. I love him. This right here with this team, this is what I always thought it could be like.”

Before his first minicamp, Williams asked Rams defensive backs coach Ron Meeks to coach him like a rookie. He took notes in meetings like a first-year law student. He did extra crunches waiting for his turn during drills. And Williams continued his habit of returning every pick in practice all the way back to the end zone. “You want an example of how to be a pro?” Meeks asked his players. “Follow Aeneas. Do what he does.” A few weeks later, a proud-papa smile spread across Smith’s face when he noticed the young Rams DBs -- guys like Dre’ Bly, Dexter McCleon and Adam Archuleta -- as well as vets like Fletcher taking notes in meetings, banging out extra crunches in their spare time and taking picks back 90 yards to the end zone during practice.

At some point during the season -- maybe it was when he returned a pick 42 yards for a TD (the seventh of his career) against the Jets, or when he notched 14 tackles against the Dolphins, or when the equipment man handed him a commemorative hat for the first division title of his career -- Williams became the Ray Bourque of the Rams. “He’s younger by being here,” says Smith. “Aeneas has Hall of Fame credentials. All he needs is a Super Bowl ring. He’s been such a shining example on and off the field in this league, he deserves a ring, and we want to get him one.”

Smith brings out videotapes of St. Louis’ two games with San Francisco. In both, Williams sets up opposite All-Pro wideout Terrell Owens, the kind of blue-chip matchup Aeneas used to have with former Cowboys WR Michael Irvin. All NFL corners are separated by the power, balance and fluidity of the two strides they take in transition out of their backpedal. And against Owens, Williams’ technique is flawless. “Aeneas comes out of his backpedal as well as anyone ever,” Rams wideout Ricky Proehl confirms. “You have to work hard all game to get open on him once, if that.”

Game two, Dec.9, the two teams are tied for the NFC West lead with 9-2 records. Williams grabs two picks and bangs heads like a rookie free agent. Following his lead, the Rams defense flies to the ball on every play: St. Louis 27, San Francisco 14.

Owens, in the two games combined, finished with eight catches, no scores and even less class. “He didn’t do anything except hold me,” Owens said after the second game.

Physical gifts combined with a relentless work ethic, a perfectionist nature (he stubbornly refuses to concede even five-yard flares) and an uncanny feel for the game (he often calls out the exact play the other team is about to run) have carried Williams to the NFL elite at his position. Two summers ago, the Pro Football Hall of Fame placed him -- along with Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Rod Woodson -- in the defensive backfield of the NFL’s All Decade team of the 1990s. Only Williams remains at the top of his game.

What keeps him there is his seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Deep into his 11th season, he still tracks down the best players in the game to pick their brains. Recently, he’s interviewed, among others, Jets coach Herman Edwards; Green, the ageless Redskins wonder; former Raiders great Mike Haynes; and former Oilers and Redskins safety Kenny Houston, who until this season held the NFL record for career picks returned for TDs. But no one has had as much impact on Williams’ mental approach as former Chargers star Gill Byrd.

“Like me, Gill wasn’t the fastest guy,” says Williams. “But he played the position with the kind of skills that neutralized speed. From a mental approach he told me, ‘Don’t look at the position like you have to stop them. Think of it as, they have to get by you.’ For me, that was a paradigm shift.”

Williams is on the verge of another. If the Rams win this week, he’ll return home to New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXVI. (“What an ending that would be if this all ends up where it started, in New Orleans. Wow!”) The game will be played in the Superdome, where a teenage Williams used to sell peanuts and popcorn during Saints games, competing for customers with Faulk, another New Orleans native and former peanut vendor.

The obvious question hangs in the air, like a football floating just above a wide receiver’s fingertips. “Yeah,” Williams says with a chuckle, stepping in to snatch it away before it’s asked, “I probably outsold Marshall.”

Funny. Aeneas Williams is still giving fans sustenance.

This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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