Decade in desert whets Williams' appetite for title

Rams cornerback savors success after Arizona experience

Super Bowl Patriots Vs. Rams

February 01, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Aeneas Williams has come home to write the feel-good story of Super Bowl XXXVI.

He is a native son of New Orleans, a licensed minister in Phoenix and a Pro Bowl cornerback with the St. Louis Rams.

His is a resume all the more remarkable for the 10 years he toiled in the Arizona desert trying to reinvigorate a forlorn Cardinals franchise.

Failing that, he came to St. Louis to inspire a defensive renaissance.

"I could not have written the script any better," he said. "I just praise the Lord how everything has transpired. A year ago, I'm in Arizona and now I am here with an outstanding team and tremendous organization."

Williams was a godsend for the Rams, who aim for their second NFL championship in three years Sunday against the New England Patriots at the Superdome.

A year ago, the Rams allowed a ghastly 471 points, ranked 27th in pass defense and 23rd in total defense. This year they gave up nearly 200 fewer points (273), ranked 10th in pass defense and third in total defense.

Williams, acquired in a draft-day trade with the Cardinals, was one of the major changes in a defensive overhaul in the off-season.

"Aeneas has meant a lot to this team," said cornerback Dre Bly. "We were lacking leadership on defense last year. To be able to bring Aeneas to our team was great, not only for the defense, but also for the whole team.

"He is a true professional. He is a guy that every player should want to be like. He is the first guy there [at the Rams' practice facility] and always the last one to leave. His preparation for the game is unbelievable."

Williams turned 34 on Monday and doesn't appear to have lost anything off his game. He was picked for his seventh Pro Bowl this season, and has had an amazing postseason. He intercepted Brett Favre twice in a divisional playoff rout of the Green Bay Packers and returned both for touchdowns.

He sealed last week's NFC championship game victory over the Philadelphia Eagles with another interception in the final two minutes.

"He means to our defense what Marshall [Faulk] meant to our offense in '99 when he came in," coach Mike Martz said. "He has the same psychological impact and brings the same type of skill level to the defense."

That impact was born of a work ethic and performance. Once Martz brought in new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, he needed a player to set new standards. Williams filled the bill.

"I wanted to continue to develop as a player, a person and ... some way raise the level of play of the guys around me, if I could," Williams said of his arrival in St. Louis. "Not necessarily by preaching to guys and saying, `This is what you should do,' but going out day in and day out and working.

"I think I was able to find out what was needed at the time. Sometimes words were needed. Sometimes actions were needed. Sometimes it was just being quiet and understanding the big picture. I think leadership requires that you understand the situation, what it needs at the time."

Williams came to this understanding in large part through his experiences in Arizona, where the Cardinals reached the playoffs only once in his 10 seasons. That was in 1998, and they quickly retreated to the bottom of the pack a year later.

It was a tough lesson.

"One of my dreams was always to be a part of turning the program around," he said. "That 1998 season was huge. To not capitalize on that was a little difficult."

That failure is what makes 2001 so sweet for Williams.

"It makes it that much more special," said Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl, who played with Williams in Arizona. "All those years when you were 4-12 and 5-11, thinking: `How much longer can I keep this up? How much longer can I play with these dismal teams?' There comes a time when all of your personal success doesn't matter anymore.

"You know what you can do as an athlete, you know what your goal is on the team, you know what your status is as far as history in the league. And Aeneas has done it all. He is going to go down as one of the best cornerbacks to play the game, and unless you win, it doesn't mean anything."

As always, Williams, a devout Christian, sees the bigger picture. This may be a crowning moment for the football player, but not for the man who once baptized another NFL player at the Pro Bowl.

"The Super Bowl is part of a journey, it's not the end," Williams said. "As you grow older, you realize it's not the end. But it is a significant part of what we do as football players. That's the ultimate goal as a football player. This will be a chapter in the book, but it won't be the whole book."

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