Aeneas Williams played his final season as a Cardinal in 2000. He never played in University of Phoenix Stadium.
But the Hall-of-Famer, who will be inducted Saturday in Canton, Ohio, did play a major role in a win that might’ve gotten the stadium built.
In that final season for Williams, the Cardinals were reeling. Head coach Vince Tobin was fired before the season’s midway point, replaced by then-interim coach Dave McGinnis. The Cards ended up 3-13 that season and lost 10 of their last 11 games.
The one win, though, was pretty big. It came at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 5, just two days before the voters of Maricopa County would be asked to decide on Proposition 302, which would impose the tax mechanism needed to build a new football stadium where the Cardinals would play.
The Redskins were not a great team, but they were better than the sliding Cardinals, and looked that way on the game-opening drive, marching rather easily to the Arizona 1-yard line. But as running back Stephen Davis tried to punch it into the end zone, linebacker Ron McKinnon forced a fumble, and Williams picked it up in the end zone.
Instead of falling on it, Williams looked for daylight and took off. He didn’t stop until he had a 104-yard fumble return for a touchdown. (At first it was called 103 yards, but a later review by the Cardinals and the Elias Sports Bureau changed the play to 104 yards to tie the NFL record.)
Two plays later for the Redskins, Williams picked off Washington quarterback Jeff George, leading to a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The Cardinals really shouldn’t have won that day. The Redskins outgained the Cardinals, 422-178. The Redskins missed two fourth-quarter field goals, and the Cardinals somehow held on to a 16-15 win they would not have had without their Pro Bowl cornerback.
Perhaps Prop. 302 would have passed without a victory that Sunday, but it felt like that win – especially in a season when the Cardinals couldn’t find one – helped pushed the vote to pass by the slimmest of margins.
To this, Williams isn’t taking personal credit. But he does believe in the power of the team win.
“I never look at it from an individual standpoint that I played a significant role,” Williams said. “I will say as a team, it’s always good when you are going to have a significant vote like that to end up on a winning note like we did that particular weekend.
“I do remember the fumble recovery and the next series I intercepted the ball and I remember coming off the field crying with my teammates, not even knowing or thinking about the momentum or excitement as a team we might have created. This organization, they do deserve a stadium, to compete against the other teams in the league. I’m quite sure as a team and organization we gave the city something to be excited about.”
The vote passed by a margin of 52-48 percent. In 2006, the Cardinals played their first game in University of Phoenix Stadium, and in 2008, Williams was put into the stadium’s Ring of Honor.