On an early spring evening, Aeneas Williams returned home to Harrell Park, where his Hall of Fame career began.
Under legendary coach Elton Mims, and along with his childhood friends, Williams dominated the competition, while learning valuable life lessons. The foundation for future success was set.
"When we were able to get away and come to the park, and do what I loved doing, which was football, this was a safe place, and no matter what was going on outside this park, Coach Mims and these coaches did a tremendous job of helping us develop character and discipline, right here on this field," Aeneas Williams said.
His parents, Lawrence and Lillian, remember those days well.
"He was always a very serious player," Lillian Williams said. "When he was on the field, he did not recognize me. He did not look at me, he was just totally focused. He had laser vision."
Lawrence Williams added, "Aeneas wasn't the best athlete by far, but you know he was maybe one of the hardest workers."
Aeneas became a standout at Fortier High School but decided to focus on academics his first two years at Southern University before eventually resuming his playing career.
"He had other people on the team, that he had played with in high school in New Orleans who kept telling him, 'Aeneas come out,'" Lillian said. "You're better than some of the players that's out here already."
Aeneas added, "My story is a story of potential, and it's going after my heart's desire. And even though it made no sense to walk-on the football team my junior year, when I was already on pace to graduate with my degree in accounting in three years, I followed by heart, because I believe that's how God speaks to people."
Following a standout senior campaign, the Arizona Cardinals drafted Aeneas Williams in 1991. He played 14 NFL seasons, with eight Pro Bowl appearances. One coach who played an instrumental role early in Aeneas' career with the Cardinals was current Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"As soon as Rob Ryan got the job, his dad, Buddy Ryan, was the head coach," Aeneas said. "Rob put his arms around me like I'm doing with Dale. He says, 'Aeneas you can lead this league in interceptions. I saw you do it your senior year in college,' because I led the nation with 11. And that was the first year, I made all-pro, I made the Pro Bowl and I led the league in interceptions. So a lot of times, it has to do with the significance of coaches, speaking into players, because what they don't realize, even at the pro level, it's easy for guys to lose their confidence. And have doubt because the competition is so stiff."
And Williams knew Ryan would have a similar influence on the Saints last year.
"I said you don't have to worry about the defense, all those guys will play better than they played, and they will believe they're better than maybe what they are, because of what Rob will do, in terms of motivation, and putting them in position to be successful."
With the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, Williams tallied 55 career interceptions and nine touchdowns. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame last year, but came up just short. This year, there was no doubt, and Aeneas received the nod Super Bowl weekend.
"To know the journey, and to know from Southern University, I-AA, and to hear my name called, my wife and I, when we were in New York, as soon as we heard it, I'm smiling just like I'm smiling right now. And first thing we did was got down on our knees and give the Lord praise, just for this distinction and this moment. And I still have to return more texts and more phone calls, but when I do respond I let people know, I apologize that I didn't give an immediate reply because I normally do. But they don't have cell phone service in the clouds, I'm still back on Earth now."
Lillian added, "Of course, I was very happy, elated. His statistics spoke for themself, so I knew it was just a matter of time."
"It's one thing for mom and dad to say my kid, he was a pretty good ball player," Lawrence Williams added. "But when you have something that substantiates, you were real good, one of the best. I don't have to do a lot of talking now."
Childhood friend Dale Elmore added, "I believe his hard work finally paid off, you know for him to reach this level that's he at right now, and we are so proud of him. It's like we all made it."
Fully entrenched in his faith, Williams is currently a pastor at the Spirit Church in St. Louis, where continues to work hard to help others.
"My wife and I pastored players, their spouses and significant others, while I was playing," Aeneas said. "Because I wanted to have a foundation, because when you play football, you have notoriety, man there are so many obstacles, there are so many potential distractions. And not that I didn't get distracted at times, but my relationship with Christ helped me become accountable when nobody was watching."
And this Summer, he'll make the trip to Canton, Ohio, with family and friends to become just the second New Orleans native to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Marshall Faulk, whose mother went to elementary school with Lillian Williams.
"It's just ironic that these two little girls, were in the same school and 30 years, projected down into the future," Lillian said.
Lawrence added, "That's great, and I know we're gonna have another one in a few years, Peyton. Hopefully, Eli will make it too, but that's great. That's great for New Orleans, great for Louisiana."
"If somebody had asked me my first and second year in college, hey do you know that you're capable of being one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL? I would have thought they were crazy, but to now look back and see that I almost missed that opportunity.I want my story to be a reminder to people: follow your dreams, go after your heart, don't be afraid of that, because when it's all said and done, you're gonna be glad you did. And that's part of the message that I'll share in my Hall of Fame speech," Aeneas said.
But before the speech, the enshrinement, all the emotions of a life-defining moment this summer, it was important for Aeneas Williams to come home one more time.
"This is a special place, special people. And the awesome thing is to be back here and to talk to some of the young kids who are playing now. But a lot of the coaches, that are coaching now, I played with. Or they're a little older than I am, but all of them were influenced by the culture that Coach Mims set, and that's what I'm excited about of being back here at Harrell Park."
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