Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay is light-hearted and confident, with an easy laugh. However, there is still one thing that stirs an overwhelming sadness in him, watching a mother-son dance at a wedding. The memories come flooding back and he has to leave the room. Gay’s mother was murdered when he was eight.
The first inkling that Gay and his two brothers, ages four and 15, had that anything was wrong in their household was when their mother told them that they would be moving out of the house they shared with her boyfriend, the father of Gay’s younger brother.
But, that move never happened. When she tried to leave, Carolyn Hall was shot to death by her boyfriend, who then turned the gun on himself.
In an instant, through an act of domestic violence, three young boys were left motherless. Their grandmother took them in, feeling that the best thing was to keep them together and among family. But, a light had gone out in Gay.
“You felt like you were supposed to have her, so I thought the world was against me. I gave up on life at that moment,” he said.
Gay became angry, uncooperative and disrespectful. He stopped doing well in school and started getting into fights.
“If you even mentioned the word ‘mom’ to me I was ready to fight,” he said, “It didn’t matter who it was. That lasted about four years.”
Finally, an intervention took place. Gay’s grandmother reached out to his uncles and they sat their nephew down and explained the hard realities as they saw them; If Gay didn’t straighten out, he was going to end up in jail – or worse. Fortunately there was one carrot they were able to dangle that proved to be the lifesaver. Football.
Gay had been playing since he was very young and it was the one thing he loved and didn’t want to give up. His uncles explained that if he kept on his current path he would lose everything, including football.
They impressed upon him that by righting himself he could go to college and have a future.
The change happened then and there. Gay turned things around, ultimately getting a scholarship to the University of Louisville to play cornerback. He graduated in three-and-a-half years with a degree in sports administration.
Then, in 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Gay in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.
Upon arriving in the NFL, Gay started to put the wheels in motion for taking an active role in helping women and families affected by domestic violence. He started working with Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, telling his story and offering support.
He has sponsored annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the residents of the shelters, and also gives seminars where he speaks to the men who have been the aggressors.
“I’m not pointing a finger,” he said of those talks, “but trying to show them, let’s make a change.”
And he has been vocal about his experience and the work he was doing with his teammates. He tries to impress on everyone that violence isn’t the answer and there are many avenues to get help. “In the locker room, or while we’re stretching, we’ll chit chat about domestic violence. Guys know I’m heavy on that, they know my story.”
In fact, many of his teammates have rallied around him. In 2012, when Gay was playing for the Arizona Cardinals and couldn’t make it back to Pittsburgh for the dinners at the shelter, defensive backs Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor stepped in and represented him.
So what is his advice to someone who doesn’t know how to manage their feelings and instincts toward violent behavior?
“Talk to someone,” Gay said. “Everyone gets frustrated. Violence shouldn’t be a result. It should never be considered. There’s all types of therapy. There are all types of figures you can look up to as father figures – your coaches, your assistant coaches. If you don’t want anybody like that to know about it, you have your best friend.”
He also tells the men he speaks to that they should look at it from a wider perspective. “Everybody makes mistakes, but this is a bad mistake. Think about it, you have a mother, a daughter, a sister. How would you feel if this was happening to them? If you use that (line of thinking) a lot of that won’t happen.”
And if a man feels like he’s being provoked into taking aggressive action? “There’s always a way to get out. Be the bigger man and get out of the situation. I say any dude that hits his women is a punk.”
For Gay, the future is bright. Regardless of where his life and career take him, he is committed to the shelter. And he hopes to one day be that father figure and guiding light for other players.
“I’m going to go into coaching after my playing days are over,” Gay said. “I had one coach, Joe Whitt (now the cornerbacks coach with the Green Bay Packers), that helped me all through college to help me become a man. He first became a coach at age 26 and he got an 18-year old kid to become a man. My coaches in Pittsburgh helped me develop. My coaches have helped me all the way from Pee Wee.”
William Gay’s future is bright and he hopes to make the futures of others just as bright.