PITTSBURGH – For years William Gay kept quiet. About his remarkable story. About his sometimes erratic play. About the personal tragedy that shaped him.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback still refuses to take credit for the best stretch of his career on the field, he understands the time has come for him to speak up about his life off it.
Orphaned as a child when his mother was shot and killed by his stepfather, the player who spent so long ducking the spotlight is now embracing it. The 29-year-old is using the platform his job provides to offer hope for those who are searching for the kind of support his mother never found.
Gay has developed a close relationship with the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, becoming the spokesman for an app designed to help people identify if they are a victim of domestic violence and connect them to a local hotline. He's even taken to tweaking his game uniform if it gets people to understand there is a way out.
"I don't care about a sport when it comes down to domestic violence," he said. "This is real. Someone can lose their life to it. So I'm not concerned about the sport. I'm concerned about what happens in the world, what happens in real life."
It's Gay's way of honoring his mother Carolyn, who died when Gay was in second grade following a dispute with her husband. Gay ended up being raised by his extended family and did what he could to keep strangers at a distance. Maturity and a compelling need for his mother's passing to make a difference in the lives of others led him to open up.
When he premiered a Public Service Announcement to announce the RUSafe app in October, he was surrounded by coach Mike Tomlin and his teammates. The Steelers recognized Gay as their 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year, an honor he does his best to downplay. He's just a small part of a growing movement.
"My mother, she never had the opportunity," Gay said. "What I'm doing now, I'm doing for her."
Including occasionally wearing purple cleats, a color closely associated with the anti-domestic violence movement. Gay donned the footwear twice last month, demanding people notice after a 33-yard interception return for a score against Indianapolis led to one of the giddiest touchdown dances in recent memory.
It was a celebratory moment and a watershed one for the defensive back whose personal and professional lives have at long last found peace.
Gay started the season as an insurance policy and has evolved into a vital member of an injury-ravaged secondary. He will play in his 124th consecutive game Sunday when the Steelers (7-4) host the New Orleans Saints (4-7). He's already tied a career high with two interceptions, both of which ended with him streaking across the goal line for a game-turning score.
"He's highly underrated," longtime teammate Ike Taylor said. "He's got more touchdowns than a lot of receivers. ... He's gotten really comfortable with himself and it's showing."
Gay really didn't have much of a choice. He was thrust into the starting lineup when Taylor went down with a broken forearm in Week 3, then became the No. 1 cornerback when Cortez Allen's struggles led to his benching. His steady play has helped Pittsburgh put together a 4-1 run to stay in the thick of the AFC North, though Gay sidesteps the notion he took on a greater leadership role with Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu sidelined.
"Really I didn't because Ike was everywhere," Gay said. "Timeouts he was in the huddle. When we were on the field he was giving us tendencies. There was never a moment we were alone. For me to say, 'I've got to do this; I've got to be the bigger brother. No.' We still had Ike. We still had Troy on the sideline. They made it easy."
The last two months have also served as a redemption of sorts on the field. Gay spent the first five years of his career in Pittsburgh mostly as a nickelback, winning a Super Bowl ring but also receiving a fair share of the blame when things went wrong. He spent one forgettable season in Arizona in 2012 before returning home. He's repaid Pittsburgh's confidence in full and then some.
"My job is to watch film and prepare," Gay said, "and be ready for whatever comes."
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