Williams enjoying Super Bowl homecoming

Friday, February 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Aeneas Williams has always had a Super Bowl game. Now he has a team to match it.

The St. Louis Rams' cornerback is finally playing for a contender, after 10 years of futility with the Arizona Cardinals. Even better, he's playing Sunday's big game just down the road from where he grew up.

``To have that opportunity and to do it in front of your hometown in the Superdome, where I sold popcorn, peanuts and Coke, where I played high school and college games, is great,'' Williams said. ``This is familiar territory for me.''

The Rams, redesigning their defense after an abominable showing last year, consider him the centerpiece of the new unit that was ranked third in the NFL. Coach Mike Martz has often said he considers Williams the defensive equivalent of Marshall Faulk, the NFL offensive player of the year and last year's MVP.

Though the Rams have five Pro Bowl players on offense, there is only one on defense: Williams, who had two touchdowns during the regular season, then set an NFL record by returning two interceptions for scores in the playoffs against Green Bay.

Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith doesn't think he could have pulled off the turnaround without Williams.

``Nothing against the rest of the players,'' Smith said. ``Not only has Aeneas had a career year, but he's also our leader. It's hard to imagine us making a leap like that without him.''

To get to where he is today, Williams said he only focused on things he could control.

``And that helped me a lot,'' he said.

``Any assignment you have, there are distasteful elements. And if you concentrate on the distasteful elements, I think it diminishes zeal and your enthusiasm.''

So he sought personal excellence and found it, making the Pro Bowl six consecutive years with the Cardinals, a team that made the playoffs once in his time there.

Though 34, Williams still glows with a rookie's enthusiasm.

He keeps his own book on the quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. He's always the first one to team meetings, parking himself in the front row and taking copious notes.

``His preparation is unbelievable,'' cornerback Dre' Bly said. ``I can see Aeneas coaching when he finishes playing because he knows a lot about the game, and he studies the game a lot.''

The Patriots know it, too.

``Oh man, he's a savvy vet,'' wide receiver David Patten said. ``Up in age, you may tend to lose a little speed, but you can't tell it with him. He's just so smart and confident.''

The Pats' Troy Brown said: ``He knows just about every trick in the book. He's been around a long time. He's covered the best receivers in the game and he's seen every move you could possibly imagine.''

All of this is very flattering to Williams. So was the large photograph of a 4-year-old Aeneas in full uniform and scowl that appeared on the front page of Monday's Times-Picayune newspaper.

His parents, who deliberately gave Williams and older brother Achilles unique names so they'd stand out, still live in the same house on Belfast Street.

``It's still a neighborhood where I think everybody still knows each other. Everybody in that neighborhood, I think, is celebrating now,'' he said.

Growing up, his most memorable job was a cashier at the local Winn-Dixie supermarket.

``I just loved handling that money,'' Williams said. ``You had to memorize all the vegetables so you knew what code to type in.''

In the NFC championship game, his fourth-quarter interception of Donovan McNabb sealed the Rams' 29-24 victory and a second trip to the Super Bowl in three years.

None of this was a surprise to his teammates or coaches. He's probably made 100 interceptions in practice this season, always going at game speed. And he had four interceptions during the season.

``It's fun facing Aeneas,'' Rams wide receiver Torry Holt said. ``If you can go up against Aeneas and win some battles against him, you come out of that day feeling pretty good.''