Veteran Steelers DB William Gay imparts wisdom, eyes coaching career
After a practice this week, William Gay was standing in the middle of the Steelers locker room counseling a teammate nine years his junior.
The veteran cornerback is 8 inches shorter than defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, but Tuitt was the one looking up to Gay — at least figuratively.
“He was just asking about just being in the playoffs and how you deliver messages and how to get guys to respond,” Gay said. “I just told him, “ ‘You gotta be real. You've got to lead with a purpose.' And by that I meant you can get guys to believe in what you're saying because you show it. Because you're serious about it.”
It was a midweek chat that lasted less than a minute, but it illustrated the stature Gay carries among his teammates. Tuitt went to somebody a quarter of the way across the locker room who plays a different position when he sought guidance.
No wonder Gay, in his 11th season, has earned a nickname from his defensive brethren.
“Yeah, we call him ‘Coach,' ” said one of Gay's actual coaches, defensive coordinator Keith Butler. “He likes to coach, and we don't discourage it as long as he is on the same page with us. He does a good job for us. We are glad that we have him.”
The Steelers have had Gay for 10 of the past 11 years since they took him in the fifth round of Mike Tomlin's first draft in 2007. Aside from a one-year detour to the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, Gay has appeared in each of the Steelers' games since.
How has an undersized fifth-round pick lasted 11 seasons?
“I can say this honestly,” said veteran cornerback Joe Haden, a new teammate of Gay's this season. “William Gay is the smartest (defensive back) — and maybe even defensive player — I have ever played with.”
Haden has been in the pros for nine seasons, and he played with a bevy of future NFL players at Florida.
“As far as just understanding the complete concepts, understanding why coaches call plays, understanding what every single person on the defense is doing, I honestly think he could be a defensive coordinator as soon as he finishes playing,” Haden said. “He literally knows that much, and it's not just blowing smoke. Literally.
“I have been playing for a long time now, and that dude is the smartest dude I have ever played with. He just gets it. He understands why we are doing everything that we do. He's just a special guy.”
Haden leaned on Gay when he had to learn the defense upon joining the Steelers 11 days before the regular season began.
“He can make adjustments because he has made them before,” Butler said.
He's been here for a long time. He's played this defense for a long time. He knows this system, and he knows where the weaknesses are. He knows where everybody should be.”
Gay said that comes, in part, from the veteran teammates he had when he joined the Steelers: Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and, in particular, Deshea Townsend. Townsend told Gay to learn where every defensive back was supposed to be for each play, and when that was mastered, to learn all the linebackers spots. And after achieving that, learn the linemen's positioning, too.
“He was like, ‘You can close your eyes and make a call, and you can place everybody,' ” Gay said. “And that's what I wanted to do. And now that you know it, now you take it to the next level as far as, ‘How can the offense attack you?' And ‘What tendencies the offense has?' Things of that nature. That's how you keep learning, because football evolves and is a whole bunch of learning each year.”
A high school quarterback — Gay said that helped him understand the sport — he is continuing to learn, even after turning 33 on New Year's Day. And that's not only to help the Steelers advance to their third Super Bowl since he joined them, and it's not just to help him extend his career into a 12th season (and beyond), either.
Seems as if ‘Coach' wants to coach.
“And not only coach, I want to climb that ladder,” Gay said. “I just don't want to say I'm a position coach. I want to be defensive coordinator. I want to be a head coach.”
For the Steelers' second-longest tenured active player, few at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex would doubt Gay someday can.