Mickles: It’s smiles all around for Aeneas Williams

St. Louis Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams (35) celebrates returning an interception for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers in their NFC divisional playoff game in St. Louis, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Show caption
St. Louis Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams (35) celebrates returning an interception for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers in their NFC divisional playoff game in St. Louis, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It has been three weeks and one day since Aeneas Williams was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He hasn’t stopped smiling.

Not since receiving a call from the hall informing him that he was part of the seven-man Class of 2014.

Not since being introduced as a Hall of Famer for the first time at the gala NFL Honors show a couple of hours later.

Not since an emotional, chance meeting with an old friend early the next morning in, of all places, midtown Manhattan.

Perhaps the humble New Orleans native, a Fortier High School graduate who went on to play at Southern University and then 14 solid seasons in the NFL, will never stop smiling.

The only thing that has stopped him since then have been tears of joy, first with his wife, Tracy, after he was informed that he was chosen for the sport’s ultimate honor in his third consecutive year as a finalist.

“It has sunk in, but it’s still evolving,” said Williams, only the second New Orleans-born player to make the Hall of Fame, on Friday. “The magnitude of the distinction is still being felt as it relates to the reaction of different people.”

That includes the 46-year-old Williams himself.

Since the announcement on the evening of Feb. 1, he has learned a lot more about the game he played so well for so long and the Hall of Fame he’ll soon be a part of in Canton, Ohio.

For example, there will be 287 Hall of Fame members when this year’s class is enshrined Aug. 2, of which only 130 are still living. That group comes from more than 36,000 men who have played at least one NFL game.

“That’s truly amazing,” Williams said.

Almost, but not quite, as amazing as the path he took to get there.

Just two years of college ball at Southern, when priority No. 1 was earning an accounting degree, were enough to get him a look from the NFL scouts.

Williams later earned All-Pro honors three times and was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection — mostly as a cornerback with the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams — from 1991 to 2004.

With a résumé that included 55 interceptions and nine touchdown returns, as well as a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s, Williams was a semifinalist in his first two years of eligibility before becoming a finalist in 2012.

After coming up short twice, he finally got the nod from the 46-member Hall of Fame Selection Committee, which started the process last summer with 126 nominees.

Williams, now a pastor, has said repeatedly he respects the process and was touched when he received the news.

“All I could do was get down on my knees and thank God,” he said, “and praise the Lord for this distinction.”

His selection was validated later that evening when Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel director and scout, slipped Williams a piece of paper following a brief chat.

“It had graphs and numbers and a bunch of names on it,” Williams said. “He told me it was a no-brainer for him, that he put me up against some of the best (cornerbacks) that played the game.”

Included on the paper were the names of three Hall of Famers: Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Rod Woodson.

“He said, ‘Whenever you had a prime-time matchup with the top wide receivers, you played your best,’ ” Williams said. “He said, ‘Your numbers are better than all of them.’ I didn’t know all the statistical breakdowns.”

The next day, Williams said he awoke at 5 a.m. and took a long walk through Manhattan. As he usually does, he ducked into several hotels to take a look around the lobby.

As he approached one hotel, someone called out a nickname that only his parents and closest friends know him by: Neekie.

“I turned around, and there’s a Cadillac Escalade with a driver and a guy sitting in the back … and it’s Marshall Faulk,” Williams said of his former Rams teammate and the only other Pro Football Hall of Famer born in New Orleans.

“He gets out and begins to cry — telling me how my faith had such an impact on him, and how two guys could come out of New Orleans and earn this distinction. So there we were, two guys from New Orleans, crying in Times Square at 6 o’clock in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday.”

That’s enough to make anyone smile.