For many years they harbored a secret, but then, what family
hasn't? Just because this secret involved missing eggs--two of
them hard-boiled--is no reason to dismiss it as trivial. When
Lawrence Williams removed his belt and instructed his sons,
Malcolm, Achilles and Aeneas, to drop trou and form what the
Williams boys grimly refer to as a "butt line," there was
nothing trivial about it.
While her breakfast eggs boiled, Lawrence's wife, Lillian, had
gotten ready for work. When she returned to the kitchen on this
fateful morning in the late 1970s, her eggs had been eaten, and
none of her boys would fess up. That evening, to coax the truth
from his tight-lipped sons, Lawrence took his belt to their
behinds. He worked his way up and down the butt line until
Aeneas, the baby, blurted out, "I ate 'em!"
"I took the fall," says Aeneas, who guesses he was nine at the
time of the Egg Inquisition. That means Achilles was 11 and
Malcolm 14. Aeneas took the fall, but did he eat the eggs? For
years it remained a mystery.
Over time evidence arose incriminating Aeneas: He grew up to
become an extraordinarily adept thief of oblong objects. Now 29
and laboring as a cornerback in the NFL backwater of Arizona, he
has intercepted 36 passes in 6 1/2 pro seasons. Since the start
of the 1994 season he has had 26 interceptions; in that span, no
other NFL player has had more. What makes Williams the league's
most dangerous corner--sorry, Deion--is his knack for delivering
what he calls the "quick six": He has returned a half-dozen
interceptions for touchdowns. It's a measure of Williams's
brilliance and the dreadfulness of Arizona's offense that after
Sunday's 13-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, his two
touchdowns tied him for the team lead.
In his last eight games Williams has returned three
interceptions for TDs. The NFL career record is nine, by Kenny
Houston, who played 14 NFL seasons, six of them with the Houston
Oilers. Lawrence Williams declares with uncharacteristic
rashness, "I guarantee Aeneas will break that record."
You've got to like his chances. Williams is an avowed
teetotaler, a fitness fiend and a devoted student of the game.
Several years ago Houston took a call from a perfect stranger.
"I called him up in Houston, then went to visit him," says
Williams. "We talked about techniques, footwork, strategy. When
someone has been successful, I have a passion for finding out
what made him that way."
His passion for learning extends to books. As an all-city
cornerback at Fortier High in New Orleans, he turned down a
nonathletic scholarship to Dartmouth to pay to attend Southern
University, where Achilles was already a student. (Southern was
also the alma mater of Lawrence, a diligent student who was once
informed, upon attempting to register for classes, that he'd
been suspended. It turned out he'd been mistaken for another
Lawrence Williams, a typical mix-up that he and Lillian were
determined to spare their sons.)
Despite playing at Fortier with three future NFL defensive backs
(Ashley Ambrose of the Cincinnati Bengals; Maurice Hurst, who
played for the New England Patriots; and Kevin Lewis, who played
for the San Francisco 49ers), Williams felt no compulsion to
enrich Southern's proud tradition. He didn't play football as a
freshman or sophomore because he preferred to hit the books. His
junior year, a week before the start of the season, he was
leaving the library when, he says, he "smelled fall in the air"
and hankered to play again. Five games into the season he was
starting. Three-and-a-half years later the Cardinals took him in
the third round of the 1991 draft. In his first pro season he
started 15 games, picked off an NFC-leading six passes and was
named the conference's defensive rookie of the year. "That's
just like Aeneas," says Arizona middle linebacker Eric Hill.
"Nothing about this guy is normal."
Certainly he's abnormal when it comes to two things:
bowleggedness and bullheadedness. "But you'd be surprised how
many great corners are bowlegged," says Cardinals vice president
Larry Wilson, himself a Hall of Fame defensive back. "I don't
know if it helps guys come out of their backpedal quicker or
what, but there's something to it."
Easygoing and mellow at other times, on game days Williams is
stubborn and prideful, refusing to concede what most corners
must--the short pass. He prefers to spend the entire game in
press coverage, in the receiver's face. "For most guys who try
that, it's just a matter of time before somebody runs by them,"
says Arizona defensive backs coach Larry Marmie. "So you line up
off of receivers and give them the short pass. But Aeneas isn't
interested in that. He wants to take away everything."
He has the smarts and closing speed to do it. "You cannot
believe how hard you have to work to get open against him," says
Cardinals wideout Rob Moore. "And that wears on you. You've got
to run 30, 40 routes, and every one of them is a little war."
While his teammates take a knee during moments of idleness on
the practice field, Williams works on pass drops or does
abdominal crunches. While his fellow defensive backs pinch and
slap themselves to remain awake while watching video of
practice, Williams scribbles notes and asks questions of Marmie.
"I've told young players who come in here, 'If you're going to
pick somebody to follow, watch this guy,'" says Marmie. "Watch
him in the meetings, watch him on the practice field and watch
him in the game."
Is it a burden, being an example to his teammates? Williams
pondered the question last Friday evening while sitting in his
living room. In a nearby room his wife, Tracy, played with their
daughter, six-month-old Saenea (Aeneas spelled backward). "When
God gives someone an assignment," Aeneas said, "he also gives
him the grace to carry it out, without it becoming a burden. The
apostle Paul said, 'Follow me as I follow Christ,' and those are
my sentiments exactly. Because when a person looks at me, I want
him to see how Jesus Christ would conduct himself on a job."
Williams rises at five every morning to pray and read the Bible,
and he hosts a weekly Tuesday night Bible study session for
teammates and their wives. He says it's his God-given
"assignment" to minister to those of his teammates who, like
him, have been "saved."
"Aeneas is like clergy," says Cardinals fullback Larry Centers,
who, you may recall, was baptized in the Pacific Ocean by
Williams and Reggie White, Green Bay's minister of defense,
before the 1996 Pro Bowl. During the baptism, the celebrants had
to raise their voices above the chattering of Williams's teeth.
"I got saved when I was in New York," adds Moore, a former Jet,
"but my walk didn't become consistent until I got here and saw
what a real Christian was."
When did Williams begin to walk his walk? When did he realize
he'd been given a divine assignment? It was around the same time
that he decided to end his two-year sabbatical from football:
when Achilles graduated from Southern. "He'd always been
Achilles' little brother," says Tracy, who was a year behind
Aeneas in college and began dating him around that time. "When
Achilles left, Aeneas came into his own."
Until then, he was happy to follow. Lawrence recalls taking the
toddler Achilles, who had swallowed a nickel, to the hospital to
have it removed. Two weeks later Aeneas swallowed a nickel. At
Southern the brothers shared an off-campus apartment, a major
(accounting) and a fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. Like Achilles,
Aeneas participated in student government. Like Achilles, who
also had played football in high school, he didn't play
football, a decision that surprised no one in the family. "I
always emphasized education," says Lawrence, who majored in
agriculture and minored in chemistry and was hired out of
college by Union Carbide, for which he still works as a
laboratory supervisor. In 1972 he bought the stately colonial
house in which he and Lillian still live. The Williams home is
less than a mile from the Tulane campus and is distinguished by
its four Doric columns and by the French doors that open onto a
second-story porch, from which hangs a small PARKING FOR
CARDINALS FANS ONLY sign.
There was Lawrence on all fours last Thursday, foraging through
a cabinet in his study, looking for a videocassette. "Here it
is," he said finally, and he popped into a VCR a tape of a 1989
game between Southern and Jackson State. There was Aeneas,
number 13, returning an interception 57 yards for the
game-winning touchdown. There was play-by-play man and former
NFL cornerback Lem Barney making a wisecrack about
After that game Barney introduced himself to the Williamses and
predicted that Aeneas would play in the NFL. "Until then," says
Lillian, who is a florist, "we hadn't given it a thought." To
ensure that his son kept his priorities straight, Lawrence would
work his way down to the field after games, give Aeneas a hug
and whisper in the ear hole of his helmet, "How are your grades?"
In Williams's third season at Southern--having earned his degree
in four years, he was taking graduate courses in accounting--his
11 interceptions tied him with Maine's Claude Pettaway for the
Division I-AA lead. A few days before the NFL draft Lawrence
walked into the house, saw Aeneas on the couch and said
disgustedly, "The grass needs cutting, my car needs to be
washed, and you're sitting around like Prince Charming."
Little wonder that Aeneas remains humble despite having played
in the last three Pro Bowls. But then, when you're a Cardinal,
humility tends to be a permanent condition. Since Williams
arrived, Arizona has gone 35-68 and never made the playoffs.
This season it has been one of the unluckiest teams in the NFL,
losing four of its six games by a total of eight points.
Win or lose, the Cardinals are always well represented at the
postgame prayer circle. Some guys in Arizona's locker room and
front office are uneasy over that. ("Whatever happened to
separation of church and state?" asks one player, who suggests
that some of his teammates "go overboard with the God stuff.")
Coach Vince Tobin, himself a Catholic, isn't among the doubters.
"I'm very comfortable with players expressing their faith," he
says. "It's part of who they are. They draw strength from it. We
get so many going the other way these days, you need some of
your role models to stand up and profess their faith."
Tobin doesn't have to tell Williams twice. Despite having been
wooed by several teams after the 1995 season, Williams, then a
free agent, re-upped with the Redbirds. Why? Several teams would
gladly have matched the five-year, $17 million contract he
signed. But, says Aeneas, "once Tracy and I prayed, it became
clear to us that I wasn't finished with the assignment the Lord
had given me here in Arizona."
So he remains in the Valley of the Sun, picking off passes and
saving souls. It's hard not to respect the discipline and
conviction he brings to his assignments. So unquestioned is
Williams as the Cardinals' spiritual leader that it is hard to
imagine him as he once was: a follower of Achilles, the older
brother out of whose shadow he has stepped, the older brother
who leaned toward him at a family gathering five years ago and
said, "I ate the eggs."
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Williams is determined to stay toe-to-toe--and eye-to-eye--with his man (here, Eagle Irving Fryar). [Aeneas Williams and Irving Fryar in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Williams is never reluctant to stand up for his faith. [Aeneas Williams in front of church]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO As the NFL's leading interceptor since 1994, Williams frequently has had cause for celebration. [Aeneas Williams lying on field with arms raised]