CLAYTON - During his football career, Aeneas Williams earned a reputation as a quiet leader who professed a deep Christian faith. Behind the eight Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl loss was a man often sought out in the locker room to help put things in perspective.
Now, the 40-year-old Williams leads a small startup church that meets in rented space at a hotel in suburban St. Louis, where he weaves lessons from life and football into his sermons.
With football in its most important time - the college bowl season is over and the Super Bowl is looming - the strong evangelical faith of high-profile players and coaches has been getting attention.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore a Bible verse on eye black in the Bowl Championship Series title game and thanked Jesus Christ in post-game interviews. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, still alive in the NFL playoffs, has spoken out about his evangelical faith. So has Tony Dungy, who retired this week as coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Williams - who is ordained but doesn't use the title "reverend" - played for the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams as a cornerback and safety before retiring in 2005. He and his wife, Tracy, started Spirit of the Lord Family Church in their home in 2007. Services moved last year to a ballroom at the upscale Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clayton while the 70-member church seeks a permanent home.
"The hope is that each person who attends has a personal relationship with the Lord that's practical and that they're able to take that relationship and share it with someone else," Williams said.
Former Rams head coach Mike Martz, now offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, wasn't surprised that Williams decided to lead a church.
"I can't imagine him doing anything else," Martz said. Many players sought out Williams, Martz said, adding that many were drawn to William's "quiet confidence, his unshakability and resolve."
Martz found his conversations with Williams helpful, including one after the Rams lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots and began with an 0-5 record in 2002.
"He's one guy I trust completely to be absolutely honest with me," Martz said. "I think what happens, as a head coach when you lose the Super Bowl, you come back and you're so intent on fixing it and going back and winning it, that, you know, I was just not myself. He helped me understand that I was not the same coach or the same person I was in the past."
The conversation helped Martz better address how he was interacting with the team, he said.
During a recent sermon at his nondenominational Christ-ian church, Williams talked about how he didn't want to play for a new defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, before Ryan started coaching him in Arizona.
Williams realized he had been scared the coach would make him cover standout players by himself, without a back-up. Ryan, Williams noted, coached him to his first All-Pro season.
"Fear is what causes people not to grow," he said. "But you never know it because it hides so well."
Williams grew up with two older brothers, Malcolm and Achilles, in a middle-class New Orleans household where early exposure to hard work, football and faith shaped his life.
Williams' parents were actively involved in their sons' lives, encouraging them to do their very best, he said. Williams' mother, Lillian, ran a family-owned florist shop. His father, Lawrence, used to wake at 4 a.m. to commute to his job as a laboratory supervisor at Union Carbide Corp.
They also made sure the boys attended church at the Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ, part of a predominantly African-American Pentecostal denomination. But Williams said it wasn't until he was in college that he truly felt "the connection of the heart" in his relationship with Jesus Christ. In July 1989, he became a born-again Christian at Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Williams played football throughout his early years, but he didn't try to play when he first went to college. When he earned a walk-on position at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., he worked so hard the other players thought he was trying to show them up.
One of his coaches was asked if Williams was good enough for the NFL. The coach said Williams probably wasn't fast enough, running a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
So he got fast enough. Williams started training with the fastest runner he knew from the track team and the other athlete's high school coach during school vacations.
In 1990, he had 11 interceptions, a tie for the most in the nation that season.
Drafted by the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1991, Williams became known as a player who could deliver.
Before big games, he said, "I would increase my prayer time. It gave me the ability to concentrate and play in a calm state."
Williams never worried that his religious dedication might make him seem too good to be true. He said he knows he makes mistakes, and when he does, he apologizes.
When he talks about both football and the church, Williams expresses a desire to achieve his potential and help others along their own paths. He doesn't know how long he'll lead the church but says it's what he feels called to do for now.
Church member Linda Lane, 52, of Lake St. Louis, said she attends Spirit of the Lord Family Church, in part, because she feels better after a service than she does before one. She likes Williams' practical approach to biblical teaching; she likes that the church feels like home.
As for the rest of it, she said, "I don't really follow football."