Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest competitors of the first 50 Super Bowls kicks off with No. 50 Willie Williams, originally published on Jan. 11.
Willie Williams has one Super Bowl ring, in very much a supporting role, and might have had another if not for an uncharacteristically poor performance by his quarterback.
Williams went to two Super Bowls a decade apart, as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a starting cornerback on the Steelers’ lockdown defensive unit that lost Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-17.
Ten years later, in his 13th season in the NFL, he was inactive and did not dress when the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, in Super Bowl XL in Detroit. He played sparingly in the 2005 season, inactive in 15 of 19 games.
The year before, at age 33, he played in all 16 games and started 10, and enjoyed a solid season. But the following year he served largely as a mentor and example to the Steelers’ young defensive backs.
“It’s been tough for me this year,” Williams told the Toledo Blade leading up to Super Bowl XL. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before. I thought I gave it my all last year. But I understand what Coach (Cowher) is trying to do. I’ve been (in the NFL) for 13 years, so if I have to step back and let these guys in, then so be it. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Williams, 5-9 and 194 pounds, had an unusually lengthy career for a defensive back. He was a sixth-round pick by the Steelers in 1993 after a standout career at Western Carolina. The Columbia, S.C., native was first-team All-Southern Conference as a senior in 1992 and was second-team all-conference in ’90 and ’91. He left Western Carolina as the career leader for defensive backs in tackles (217) and passes defended (41).
He played for two teams, the Steelers and Seahawks. He played with Pittsburgh from 1993-96, with Seattle from 1997-2003, and went back to Pittsburgh for his final two years. He was a fixture in the Seahawks’ secondary from 1997-2002, when he recorded 17 of his 27 career interceptions.
That the only two teams he played for met in Super Bowl XL was a peculiar coincidence. “It’s kind of weird, but it’s exciting,” Williams told the Seattle Times before the game.
Williams played a key role a decade earlier in the Steelers’ run to Super Bowl XXX. Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson missed almost the entire ’95 regular season after tearing an ACL in the opener — remarkably, he returned for the Super Bowl — and Williams seized the opportunity for more playing time. He had seven interceptions and made a critical play in the AFC Championship game.
Williams tackled Indianapolis running back Lamont Warren for no gain on third-and-1, with the Colts nursing a 16-13 lead late in the game. The Colts were forced to punt, and the Steelers drove for the winning touchdown.
In Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers’ defense held the Cowboys’ offense to 254 total yards – just 61 in the second half. But Pittsburgh couldn’t overcome two Neil O’Donnell interceptions by cornerback Larry Brown — the game MVP — that gave the Cowboys two short-field touchdown drives. O’Donnell entered the game as the NFL’s all-time leader in fewest interceptions per pass attempt.
Two years later, Williams was off to Seattle before concluding his career with the Steelers and getting a ring.
“Take the game seriously,” he said in a Seattle Times story before Super Bowl XL, “because the game can pass you by fast.”