By Tim Graham
AURORA, Ohio -- Aeneas Williams didn't have an NFL orientation when he entered the league in 1991. He had to figure it out himself.
Whatever he did, it worked. And his methods were so effective they also helped mold a rare 21st-century Buffalo Bills star.
Williams went to eight Pro Bowls for the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. He's in the Cardinals' Ring of Honor.
The turning point for Williams, he told a roomful of AFC rookies Tuesday night, was reaching out to former San Diego Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd for advice. The deep bond their families developed led to Williams mentoring Byrd's son, the Bills' two-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.
To emphasize the importance of connecting with veteran players, Williams shared the life-changing tale of how he came to know the Byrds, a relationship that helped develop Jairus Byrd years later.
"After my second year in the league, I befriended Gill after a game," William said at the NFL Rookie Symposium. "I said, 'Mr. Byrd, can I call you up?' I called him up. He was shocked I called him. Why? Because most young guys don't talk to older guys."
Gill and his wife, Marilyn, became close friends with Williams and his wife, Tracy. They spent their offseasons together.
"It's tough on marriages when you play in the league," Williams told the rookies. "I got to watch Gill and Marilyn Byrd live a married life while in this fishbowl. They taught my wife and I how to handle this fame and still love each other when the game is over."
As Jairus grew up, it was Williams who became his role model. Gill Byrd is seven years older than Williams and retired after the 1992 season. Williams played until 2004.
Jairus Byrd didn't see his dad play, but he could see Williams' advice at work every autumn Sunday. Their relationship got taut when Gill Byrd became an assistant coach with St.Louis, where Williams finished his career and Byrd completed high school.
Jairus Byrd still calls him "Uncle Aeneas."
Williams paid back much of the love Gill Byrd showed him by teaching Jairus the same ball-hawk lessons that caused Williams to flip the switch from intriguing prospect to perennial Pro Bowler.
Jairus Byrd has been to two Pro Bowls in four seasons. He has 18 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles and five recoveries.
If he were to maintain that pace and play as many seasons as Williams, then Jairus Byrd will have more interceptions and forced fumbles and almost as many fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns. Williams is a two-time Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist, including for this year's class.
"Gill asked me this crazy question: What's your philosophy as a cornerback?" Williams recalled. "I didn't know how to answer the question.
"I said, 'My philosophy as a cornerback is just like most cornerbacks. Don't get beat!' Anybody ever thought of that? 'Ain't nobody going to beat me!'
"You know what Gill taught me? 'They got to beat you.' Now, that sounds like a play on words. I said, 'Mr. Byrd, what are you talking about? That's the same thing.' He said, 'No, it's not.' "
Williams finished his career with 55 interceptions, eight forced fumbles, 23 recoveries and an amazing 12 defensive touchdowns (and another on a blocked field goal).
"I used to think cornerbacks get PBUs, don't let them catch the ball," Williams said. "Mr. Byrd said, 'Man, you had 18 PBUs. What if you caught half of them? The ball in the air is just as much an opportunity for you as it is for him.' That little subtlety changed my whole career.
"How many of you have seen a cornerback next to the receiver, never look back, and the receiver almost catches the ball off [the cornerback's] back because the cornerback's so panicky he never looks for the ball?"
Cough, cough, Leodis McKelvin, cough.
"Why? Because most cornerbacks," Williams said, "it's been engrained in their minds 'Don't get beat!' Once I changed that philosophy, instead of running with the receiver, when the ball was in the air I would post him up and get the ball.
"I learned that from my mentor, Gill Byrd. I ended up making the Pro Bowl eight years."
Williams summed up the moral of the story for the AFC rookies in front of him.
"Experience is the slowest way to learn for people who won't sit at the feet of mentors," Williams said. "A mentor is not somebody who'll give you advice. A mentor is somebody's advice you follow."
taggedJairus Byrd | Leodis McKelvin