From hardship, Steelers' Gay shares hope
By Scott Brown
Published: Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011
Go ahead and trash William Gay on a message board. Light up the cornerback who, even in the midst of a solid season, is the most likely Steeler to be torched on sports-talk radio.
But before you eviscerate the player beaten on the Ravens' winning touchdown a week ago, draw back the curtain and look at the man.
Go back to last November, when Gay arrived at a Pittsburgh shelter to serve Thanksgiving dinner.
Look at the arch of his eyebrows when Barbara Nicholas, the development director of the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, informs him he is at a haven for abused women.
Watch Gay tell his story to women with cuts and bruises that are as raw as their psyche is wounded.
Gay tells them how brave they are for leaving a bad situation, something his mother tried to do when she was fatally shot. He tells them how courageous they are for taking refuge in a building where some of the windows are bulletproof.
He later stops at every table, individually talking with the women and children.
He listens to them. He hugs them. He understands them.
"It was just so real," said Nicholas, her voice catching a bit at the recollection. "It was such a genuine moment for everyone."
Moments such as these are why Joe Whitt Jr. wonders whether fans would be so tough on Gay if they knew what he has had to overcome. Whitt was Gay's position coach at Louisville. They have taken different paths to the NFL but remain close.
"People can say what they want about the football player -- that's fine," said Whitt, who is in his second season as Green Bay's secondary coach. "But the character, the man• You can't say anything about the man because I know what he is. I know I couldn't go through the things he's had to work through."
Rising from the depths
Here's something you might not know about William Gay: He graduated from Louisville in 3 1/2 years with a degree in sports administration.
He never took fewer than 15 credits in a semester despite the demands of major college football. And he always picked his own classes.
"I didn't want to be that guy that had to depend on academic advisors telling me what I need to take, telling me what I don't have to take because of football," Gay said.
That need for control may stem from the time he didn't have it.
In 1992, Gay was 7 years old and living in Tallahassee, Fla. His mother was in an abusive relationship with his stepfather. The day she tried to leave, he shot her, then turned the gun on himself.
Carolyn Hall was 30 years old.
The bottom dropped out of Gay's world. He moved in with his grandmother, into an already crowded house where space was so tight that Gay sometimes shared a bedroom with three others.
He lashed out for the next couple of years. He fought constantly and caused enough trouble that he nearly got kicked out of school.
The turning point came when his grandmother and an uncle told Gay he was on a track toward jail. Or worse.
Life is unfair, they told him. Get over it.
"I had to change, actually grow up," Gay said. "I wanted to succeed in life."
He became a good student, excelled in sports and earned a scholarship to Louisville.
He started parts of four seasons. He showed so much football acumen that he called the defensive signals as a senior -- almost unheard of for a cornerback. He also intercepted six passes his final season.
The Steelers drafted him in the fifth round in 2007. Gay has played in every game in five NFL seasons. He will make his 28th career start today in Cincinnati.
He is plugged in enough to social and mainstream media to realize that his 28 starts are 28 too many for some people. Gay is largely indifferent to the criticism; he has dealt with much worse. He will talk about his story, as deeply personal as it is, but he doesn't "broadcast" it.
"I don't want to use it as an excuse or something to say, 'If I don't do this, it's because of this,' " he said. "I hate to make excuses."
One way to get blocked from Ryan Clark's Twitter account is to trash William Gay on it. And not just because of his backstory.
"I think a lot of the criticism he gets is unwarranted," said Clark, a Steelers free safety. "Yeah, people have made plays. People make plays on a lot of cornerbacks. But I think, as well as he's playing this season, that needs to be recognized also."
Gay, who signed a one-year deal in August, has allowed 23 catches in the 39 times (59 percent) his receiver has been targeted this season, according to STATS, LLC. Only one Steelers player has allowed a higher percentage of completions: Troy Polamalu, who has yielded 23 catches on 36 targets (63.9).
Gay had largely stayed under the radar until last Sunday. Ravens rookie receiver Torrey Smith got behind the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder late in the fourth quarter and caught the winning touchdown before a stunned Heinz Field crowd. Clark had been late in helping Gay on the play.
Gay took responsibility for the touchdown immediately after the 23-20 loss. He did the same thing three days later.
What didn't register much more than a blip was what had happened earlier on the Ravens' winning drive: Smith slipped behind cornerback Ike Taylor, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but dropped Joe Flacco's pass in the end zone.
"People don't know football. They don't come in on Mondays and watch what we see," said Taylor, who works out with Gay during the offseason. "Gay has gotten a whole lot better. I know how hard he worked in the offseason, and it's showing."
Active off the field
In a five-minute video he participated in for a domestic abuse campaign, Gay talks about going to the hospital after his mother was shot and asking repeatedly why he couldn't see her. He talks about the devastation of losing his mother at such a young age.
"If I had another chance to see my mother today, I would tell her that I love her and I know the courage she had to try to get out of her situation," Gay says. "I would tell her I truly believed in her."
Gay has done what he can to combat domestic abuse, the leading cause of injury among women 15-44 in the United States, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. He has donated his time for several public-service announcements. He is slated to speak to judges, parole officers and counselors, among others, about the need for preventive measures.
Gay has given the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh a face for its campaign to combat domestic abuse. He also provides an example to kids living with domestic abuse and the sense of hopelessness that accompanies it.
"It's just great to have someone who is so thoughtful and considerate and really wise for how young he is to step forward," Nicholas said, "and do something so courageous and so meaningful -- not just for the women, but for the children."
Gay will return to the shelter in the coming weeks to serve dinner. He again will thank the women and children. He will tell them they are braver than they think. He will shine some desperately needed light into their lives.
Moments like these, away from the public, are why Whitt said, Gay "is somebody that I want my son to grow up to be like."
The son who grew up without his mother rolled up the jersey on his left arm after practice recently. He revealed a tattoo of a cross, framed by his mother's name and the date of her death.
"I know she's watching every day," Gay said. "It just brings joy to me that I'm doing things positive, and I know she's smiling. We'll be reunited one day."Additional Information:
In his words
William Gay's testimonial on how domestic abuse affected him can be viewed at vimeo.com/19524006.
Some numbers on domestic abuse, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
• 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence.
• 1 in 3 teenage girls will be physically assaulted by a boyfriend.
• Boys who witness domestic violence in their homes are 1,500 times more likely to perpetrate abuse later in life.
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