- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ken Houston didn't think Aeneas Williams was serious.
Houston met Williams, then a second-year cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, at a banquet in 1992. The elder Hall of Famer and Williams were part of a small group talking about defense. Williams was listening intently to Houston, who spent 14 seasons as a safety for the Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins and was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection.
After they finished, Williams asked Houston, who worked as school counselor, if he could visit him at his home in Texas. Sure, Houston said. But Houston never thought it would actually happen.
When Williams began realizing he had the potential to be an NFL cornerback, he wanted to be the best to play the game. And if that meant paying his own way on trips across the United States to learn from some of the game's greatest defensive backs, then that's what it would take.
Sometime after Williams' second season with the Cardinals, Houston was in the middle of teaching a class in a gymnasium at an alternative high school in Houston, Texas, when Williams walked in. Houston was as surprised as he was excited. He sent the class of juniors to the bleachers and pulled Williams over to the side of the gym where they started dissecting the art of covering a receiver.
The two spent the rest of that day talking about first steps, first touches and body control.
“I would like to say I did something but he already had the work skills. We just went over the basic fundamentals,” Houston said.
“I thought his interest in the game and his willingness to accept teaching and to seek out people who could help him to be the best [stood out]. I've never had another player do that.”
Williams knew what it'd take to be the best and his years of hard work have paid off.
Williams, who will turn 46 on Wednesday, will find out if he'll be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2014. It's his third straight year as a finalist, but to the pastor at The Spirit Church in St. Louis, Williams understands what's in his control and what's not.
“The awesome thing about this opportunity to be elected into the Hall of Fame is that all of the work I can do is already done,” Williams said.
“I am appreciative of the process. I know at the end of the day, no matter who was elected, there will be a contingent of people who think someone else should've been. I'm appreciative of those guys who make that decision and I trust that process.”
The process has brought a man who spent the first 10 years of his career mired in losing to the Hall's front stoop. Drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 1991 NFL draft, Williams remembers former Cardinals general manager Larry Wilson -- a Hall of Famer -- saying, "I think we drafted our cornerback for the next 10 years."
“Larry was like a prophet,” Williams said.
Williams played in 160 games for the Cardinals, winning just 56 of them. In 2001, he joined the St. Louis Rams and played in a Super Bowl that season, losing to the New England Patriots. In 14 seasons, Williams had 677 tackles and 55 interceptions. He is one of six players in history to return nine interceptions for touchdowns.
Of those six, the three besides Williams who are eligible for the Hall of Fame -- Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders and Houston -- are already in. Next up is Williams, who started all but four games in his career, was named to the Pro Bowl eight times and was a three-time first-team All-Pro.
What's more impressive to Houston is Williams stood out despite playing for teams that consistently lost. The Cardinals won four games four times in 10 years while he was in Arizona and three games in another. They were .500 or better just twice. And Williams played for four head coaches.
“For you to be an All-Pro and a [Pro Bowl] pick on those poor teams, guys have to really think you were doing the job,” Houston said. “And you have to play every Sunday when you're on a losing team. If you're an outstanding player on a losing team, then you're an outstanding player.
“He wasn't on a winner at the time, therefore you didn't get to see him much and when I did get a chance to see him, on those occasions, he was always steady. Never in the news. Never in the limelight. Just a good player. Never promoted himself. Someone was always promoting him. And to me, it's not self-promotion that makes you a great player, it's when other people promote you that make your name as a great player.”
To former All-Pro cornerback Gill Byrd, who Williams befriended after the Cardinals faced the Chargers late in his second season, it's more of a reflection of Williams as a man.
“The individual of Aeneas Williams had set his standards so high it didn't matter what was going on around him,” said Byrd, now the cornerbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He didn't allow his purpose to be a slave to his circumstances.”
Williams reached out to Byrd after that game in 1992 at Sun Devil Stadium, greeting him as “Mr. Byrd” and asked if he could come out to San Diego and “go over football.” Like Houston, Byrd never expected the 24-year-old to follow through.
And like he did with Houston, Williams called Byrd -- who was as surprised as Houston -- and flew out to California for a few days. That trip established a friendship and an annual trip. Williams spent time with Byrd every summer for four years -- the last two years of Byrd's career as well as two after he retired -- working on technique, as well as the mental side of the game.
Byrd went beyond footwork and proper hand placement. He taught Williams where he should be looking coming out of a break and how his hips could dictate where he'd drive a receiver.
Then they focused on the psychological part of football. Byrd taught Williams a new mindset. Instead of covering a receiver, the receiver had to beat Williams. As soon as Williams grasped Byrd's concepts, Byrd saw a confidence emerge from the up-and-coming star.
“I would say as a young man first, I saw a singular focus to be the best and that's what impressed me about Aeneas,” Byrd said. “He never traded what he wanted most for what he wanted for the moment. He would make sacrifices, even if for the moment he wanted to relax or didn't want to work out.
“He always kept in the forefront of his mind what he wanted most.”
And while other young stars in the NFL were basking in the spoils of being rich and famous in their early 20s, Williams was laying a foundation for his career. One characteristic that helped distance himself from the pack was his ability to not only seek out others for questions but to listen to their answers.
“The one thing all young players have and as you have success it's revealed as pride,” Byrd said. “Pride will do you in in a lot of situations because you don't want to take instructions from others.
“Aeneaes always humbled himself.”
And not only did Williams rise above the Cardinals' losing, he did it among tough competition.
The 1990s were full of talented defensive backs, especially in the NFC, with the likes of Darren Woodson, Mark Carrier, LeRoy Butler, Darrell Green, Eric Davis, Merton Hanks and some guy named Deion.
He didn't just look at his peers as competition, which drove him to get better, but he learned from them. Take Sanders for an example. He revolutionized the cornerback position with his unconventional staggered stance, compared to the parallel-feet stance. Williams didn't feel comfortable having his feet parallel, so when Sanders lined up with his back foot behind his front foot, Williams copied him and flourished as a press-cover corner.
As he did with Houston and Byrd, Williams befriended the best defensive backs to come before him, traveling the country in search of their knowledge. Williams said Michael Haynes, Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson all shared their wealth of defensive acumen with him.
It wasn't just defensive players who Williams would copy. When Williams learned that Jerry Rice sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown after every pass he caught for a touchdown, Williams began doing the same when he snagged an interception or scooped a fumble.
While a slew of his contemporaries helped mold Williams, it was a son of a coach who allowed him to blossom.
After Buddy Ryan replaced Joe Bugel as Arizona's head coach in 1994, Williams wasn't sure if he wanted to re-sign. He told his wife it was because he heard Ryan was hard on his players. In reality, though, it was because Ryan challenged his defensive backs.
“I was afraid to play in Buddy's system because I knew Buddy put his cornerbacks on an island,” Williams said.
Under defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, the Cardinals ran a zone blitz, Williams said, which gave him help. Ryan's new scheme was intimidating. Shortly after Williams re-signed with the Cards, Rob Ryan, then Arizona's defensive backs coach, gave Williams a hug and told him he thought he could lead the league in interceptions. In 1994, Ryan's first season, Williams tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions.
“He reminded me of what he believed I can do,” Williams said.
From then on, Williams was Arizona's top cover corner, drawing assignments such as Michael Irvin and Randy Moss for entire games, following them around the field instead of sticking to one side.
“That's when my belief, my confidence and abilities soared through the roof,” he said.
While Williams knows what it's like to lose, it didn't make the last two years any easier. When his football career began, he wrote down his goals. Among his many selfless ambitions, including helping his position coach become a defensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator become a head coach, was making the Hall of Fame.
He's knocked on the front door twice but hasn't been elected. Williams hasn't allowed it to consume him. He has a wife, four children and a congregation to do that.
“Kinda like you're up for an election and don't win,” Williams said. “You have that disappointment or that desire, but immediately your focus goes to, ‘Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to be a focus.'
“I am grateful. I express great gratitude to be there in that room and in that discussion, but I'm immediately able to keep that in perspective when it comes down to things like this.”
Williams learned as a player how to stay in the moment. He already understood the magnitude of being a professional football player, which accounts for less than one percent of all high school football players. But being a finalist, one of 15 players from across generations, to be at the final step for consideration to the Hall, he also understands the immensity of the honor.
If Williams should lose out on making the Hall again, he's prepared. He'll just reset, put it all in perspective and not think about it until 2015.
“We'll congratulate the guys that do [make it],” Williams said, “and we'll look forward to the process next year.”