AFC East: Aeneas Williams

Star ex-pupil praises Fewell as a leader

November, 18, 2009
11/18/09
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Perry Fewell's greatest pupil was pleased to receive news the Buffalo Bills had promoted Fewell to be their interim head coach.

"I'm not surprised at all that he's got an opportunity," eight-time Pro Bowl defensive back Aeneas Williams told me soon after learning the Bills had fired head coach Dick Jauron. "There's a number of coaches on that staff, but for him to be pegged -- whether it's interim or not -- to be head coach and lead those men and have that staff going forward in a difficult situation, I'm not surprised."

Williams has two direct links to the Bills through his relationship with Fewell and rookie safety Jairus Byrd.

Williams played under Fewell with the St. Louis Rams. Fewell joined the Rams as defensive backs coach in 2003, the same year Williams' old friend, Gill Byrd, arrived as a defensive assistant. It was then that Williams became a full-fledged mentor for Byrd's son, Jairus, a rookie of the year candidate who leads the NFL with eight interceptions.

Fewell's familiarity with Jairus Byrd played a significant role in Buffalo's decision to draft him in the second round, one of few successful decisions that transpired while Jauron was head coach and perhaps a factor in selecting Fewell over special teams coach Bobby April.

Williams said he was impressed with Fewell from the moment he joined the Rams, who had gone to Super Bowls two of the preview four seasons.

"I remember when he came in he wasn't in awe of anything," Williams said. "He was very professional. He knew how to get guys to play the defense and assimilated very well into a winning culture.

"Coach Fewell knew how to relate to the guys to get the veterans as well as the younger guys to play together. He commanded the respect of the players -- not demanded, but he commanded the respect of us players by his professionalism and his ability to help us be successful."

Fewell spent two seasons with the Rams. He coached defensive backs for a season with the Chicago Bears under Lovie Smith before Jauron hired him to be the Bills' defensive coordinator in 2006.

"He's been a part of organizations where we've won and we've lost, but we still were able to make it through it," Williams said. "He was always calm and always set the tone of the expectation that, 'Even though we're 0-6, this week we're going to do what it takes to get better.'"

A few more words on Byrd

October, 31, 2009
10/31/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Even with all of the information and quotes I tried to cram into Wednesday's magnum opus on Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, some material didn't make the cut. I had to stop writing at some point.

And as much as I'd love to run this post on Thanksgiving, I will settle for Halloween to deliver some leftover Byrd.

For example, you might be surprised to read that Byrd, who is known as a prolific interceptor, never has returned one for a touchdown.
 Byrd


"I know Jairus wants to get into the end zone," said Byrd's father, Gill, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers.

Jairus Byrd almost certainly would have broken Oregon's record for career interceptions had he not entered the draft a year early. He finished with 17, one behind George Shaw, who set the Ducks standard in the 1950s.

But Jairus Byrd didn't return any for a score, and hasn't been able to bring back and of his five so far with the Bills.

"I know that's what all defensive players should focus on, scoring," Gill Byrd said. "That's why you see when he gets the ball he's headed upfield. You have to have it in your mind, 'When I get the ball, I'm going to score, or put the offense in position to where they'll have a short field to work with.'"

Jairus Byrd came close to scoring in the first quarter of Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers. He intercepted a Jake Delhomme pass and brought it back 37 yards to the 7-yard line.

"I definitely would love that when the day comes that I get my first touchdown," Jairus Byrd said. "Every time you get it you want to score. I'm just focused on getting the ball in the offense's hands, but that's what I want to do.

"I know that eventually will come one day. Hopefully, I'm blessed with more and can keep trying."

For the record, Gill Byrd took two interceptions all the way back in his career. They came in the same season, and one went 99 yards.

"It wasn't like I was a touchdown artist," Gill Byrd said. "Hopefully, some of the Aeneas Williams will rub off on him."

Williams was a close friend of Gill Byrd who has mentored Jairus since high school. Williams, an eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, scored 13 touchdowns.

I asked Williams what it takes to be a successful ball hawk, and he was adamant it comes down to following through on the practice field.

"Defensive backs aren't always cognizant of making plays," Williams explained. "Yes, there's an element of the ball bouncing, but it also has to do with guys being around the ball because they're comfortable when the ball's in the air.

"It's a mentality they develop on a daily basis. You would think pros do this all the time, but I'm a living witness. I saw very few guys actually practice like that, catch balls and hawk the ball in practice. It was an uncommon occurrence.

"Guys would say, 'I don't want to get hurt,' or 'I'll get that in a game.' They think all of a sudden in a game they can turn it on. The great ones practice that on a daily basis."

In a Bills season of aggravation, Byrd emerges

October, 28, 2009
10/28/09
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Doug Benc/Getty Images
Buffalo rookie free safety Jairus Bird is determined to make receivers beat him to the ball.


The phone chirped. "Chicago Bears" scrolled across the caller ID.

The voice on the other end was buoyant, a rumble of laughter detectable underneath each syllable.

"Hello, this is Gill Byrd. Jairus Byrd used to be my son. Now I'm Jairus Byrd's father."

For all of Jairus Byrd's life, he was identified as the younger boy of Gill Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers and Bears assistant coach.

As dad acknowledged over the phone, that perception has changed over the past few weeks.

Jairus Byrd, a rookie free safety for the Buffalo Bills, has already made a name for himself. He's doing it emphatically.

Through the first seven games of his NFL career, he has been Buffalo's most valuable player.

"Clearly, he's got skills that are not ordinary even for this level," said Bills head coach Dick Jauron, "and he's using them."

Jairus Byrd ranks second in the NFL with five interceptions, one behind New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper. Byrd has snagged all of his interceptions over the past three games and has picked off a pair in two games straight.

Without his interceptions, the Bills wouldn't lead the NFL in takeaways and probably wouldn't have beaten the New York Jets or Carolina Panthers the past two Sundays. Each of his past three interceptions has set up a Bills touchdown.

In a season that has been rife with letdowns for Bills fans, Byrd has been a revelation.

"I think he can be an All-Pro consistently," said Jairus Byrd's more decorated mentor, eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams, a close friend of the Byrd family. "I think he has the ability.

"What makes you an impact player is when that offensive team, going into their game plan during the week, has to account for you. I believe he's definitely one of those guys that -- if they're not already accounting for him -- they're at least acknowledging 'You need to know where 31 is.'"

Jairus Byrd's uniform number is becoming fashionable in Buffalo, and you can already project his jerseys will be popular Christmas gifts.

Buffalo storylines this season have been dominated by Terrell Owens' lack of production, disgust over Jauron's continued employment, Marshawn Lynch's suspension, two invasions of players' homes, myriad injuries and game-losing fumbles in the final minutes.

Jairus Byrd has given Bills fans a reason to cheer.

"Everything's gone so fast," he said. "I haven't really had the chance think about where I am, what's going on. I try not to focus on that. It's just getting wins and helping the team."

Injuries to safeties Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott gave him his opportunity to start. When Whitner and Scott both are healthy, it's impossible to imagine the Bills removing Jairus Byrd from the lineup.

He's the first rookie to record five interceptions in a month since Bears safety Mark Carrier in December 1990 and the first rookie with two interceptions in consecutive games since Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls in 1981.

With nine regular-season games to play, Jairus Byrd is three interceptions away from Buffalo's rookie interceptions record (Archie Matsos) and halfway to its overall season record (Billy Atkins, Tom Janik). And he's already within two interceptions of matching his father's best season.

"I'm always trying to compete with him," Jairus Byrd said. "I tell him I'm going to get him."

When informed how close Jairus was to matching him, Gill groaned in near-defeat, "Aw, man."

Few expected Jairus Byrd to make such an immediate impact when the Bills drafted him in the second round out of Oregon. He missed minicamp because of Oregon's quarterly academic schedule. He missed much of training camp while recovering from sports hernia surgery and didn't sign his contract until the end of July.

"They got a first-round talent," Williams said, conceding that his fondness for Jairus might hurt the credibility of his assessment. "The only reason maybe he didn't go in the first round is he's not a blazer as it relates to his 40 time."

Jairus Byrd has phenomenal instincts when it comes to coming up with the ball. He never has had fewer than five interceptions in a season, leaving Oregon a year early with 17 of them. He led or tied for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions his sophomore and junior seasons. He also forced two fumbles and recovered four.

Ask him to explain how he keeps coming up with the ball, and he laughs. Then he delivers a pat answer about how his teammates deserve all the credit. You can sense he has been asked the question so frequently, but he's unable to put his knack into words.

"The guys have done a nice job of getting him ready," said Jauron, himself a Pro Bowl safety for the Detroit Lions. "But nobody's making those plays except Jairus. ... He's got qualities -- and a lot of them."
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Former Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd is passing all his knowledge onto his son, Jairus.

Williams can explain the secret to Jairus Byrd's intrinsic homing skills because Williams learned it from Gill Byrd nearly two decades ago.

Bills teammates claim Jairus Byrd demonstrates advanced football maturity, and it's easy to see why. He's a superb case study in determining whether nature or nurture determines a man's potential.

Yes, he has the bloodlines. Gill Byrd played 10 seasons for the Chargers and is in their Hall of Fame.

Perhaps more importantly, Jairus Byrd's nest was the NFL locker room. His father worked in the Green Bay Packers front office and has been an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams and Bears. Gill also credited the "discipline and encouragement" from Jairus' mother, Marilyn, and the drive to compete with Gill Byrd II, the older son by two years who became a star defensive back at New Mexico State.

But it was in St. Louis where Williams took Jairus Byrd, then a high school student, under his wing. The two became so close that Jairus Byrd still calls him Uncle Aeneas.

"It wouldn't just be running and talking football," Gill Byrd said. "It'd be talking life. It'd be talking about what it takes to be a man of God, life lessons. On top of that, he learned football and techniques from one of the best."

Williams' involvement has been critical to Jairus Byrd's development because the rookie has no distinct memories of his father playing and never has seen a frame of game tape. He turned six during his father's final season. Old-school programming on the NFL Network or ESPN Classic haven't presented a glimpse.

The only footage Jairus Byrd has seen of Gill in action was grainy practice film somebody burned onto a DVD for a joke.

Williams' tutelage meant "having someone he did watch play and look up to show him 'Yes, this is what it's all about,'" Gill Byrd said. "As with any child, you need multiple voices to deliver the same message to get things across. That old saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' I think it's appropriate even in the athletic arena."

Williams simply is returning the love Gill Byrd showed him for years. Long before Gill Byrd joined the Rams' coaching staff, he'd been teaching Williams everything he knew.

Williams emerged from Southern University in 1991 hungry for information that could give him an edge. He sought out top defensive backs because he wanted to soak in their insight. He flew to Houston to meet Ken Houston, tracked down Michael Haynes and reached out to Gill Byrd.

For the next few summers, Gill Byrd and Williams worked out in San Diego. Soon after they met, Gill imparted some words that changed the way Williams played the game and sent him on his way to a career highlighted by 55 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries and 12 defensive touchdowns.

Williams called it "that little, subtle change" in his attitude, and he's sure Gill ingrained it in Jairus, too.

"Most defensive backs play with a philosophy of 'I can't get beat,' or 'Nobody can beat me,' " Williams said. "Gill made me understand, no, my philosophy has to be 'They have to beat me,' which sounds like just words, but for me it really catapulted me to another level of understanding.

"Just think of all the defensive backs you see in a game that are right next to the receiver but never turn back to look for the ball. It's because all that guy's life he's been told 'Don't get beat.' "

A thirst for knowledge has splashed Jairus Byrd. He still texts Williams in search of any tip he can get on certain receivers (Williams shared one of Randy Moss' big tells) and will wheedle advice from the legends who hang around One Bills Drive. Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas already is a big fan.

"I try to absorb everything I can," Jairus Byrd said. "My father taught me how to be a pro in life, how to be man. He's always told me to be slow to speak and quick to hear. That's pretty much the biggest thing I learned from him."

Some might look at Jairus Byrd's interceptions and flick a dismissive wrist. He has been feasting on bad quarterback play -- Derek Anderson, Mark Sanchez, Jake Delhomme. Passes have been overthrown. Balls are bouncing off receivers' hands and right to him.

Skeptics would say Jairus Byrd is a lucky duck.

"Is it luck when you study your opponent and know their tendencies?" Gill Byrd asked. "Is it luck when you play hard and hustle? Is it luck when you find the ball, track the ball and have nothing else in sight? Is it luck when you have the hand-eye coordination to catch the ball?

"I would say it's a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. Not too many guys get lucky that often."

Or so quickly.

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