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An ode to William Gay: So much more than No. 22 for the Steelers

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A memorable football career could be but a footnote in William Gay’s legacy.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

William Gay, an old man solely by virtue of his vocation, was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday without ceremony. Gay responded by expounding niceties on social media and to the local press, telling ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that it was a “blessing” to see his career arch come full circle and complimenting Pittsburgh’s current crop of talent in the secondary. “Class act” is the kind of lazy qualifier that’s almost devoid of meaning due to its pervasiveness in draft profiles and war rooms, but I’m struggling to find a more fitting sobriquet for William Gay.

In truth, this divorce is a year or two overdue. Gay saw his professional career reach its nadir in 2017, a season in which he was relegated to dime package duties and thus played in just over a quarter of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps. As a 33-year-old slot corner flanked by speedier, sprier, and—perhaps most importantly—cheaper talent, Gay’s reckoning was imminent. Father time remains undefeated.

What we’re left with, then, is 10 years of fond memories. In 2011, for example, he scooped-and-scored on a Mark Sanchez fumble to give the Steelers a 23-0 lead in the AFC Championship Game. In 2014, Gay returned a league-high three interceptions for touchdowns, setting a franchise record and earning the Big Play Will Gay moniker in the process. In 2015, he recorded a pick-six against Cincinnati and subsequently orchestrated one of the looniest touchdown celebrations you will ever hope to see. Just last month, Gay assumed his most impactful role yet, joining former Vice President Joe Biden’s Biden Foundation as a member of the organization’s Advisory Council, which is tasked with preventing and ending violence against women.

Back in September 2014, months before he became Pittsburgh’s most volcanic defensive scoring threat since Rod Woodson, Gay wrote a lengthy column for Sports Illustrated in which he discussed his mother Carolyn Hall, who was killed by a physically-abusive ex-boyfriend after finding the strength to bail on this toxic co-existence. Gay was 8. (As an important aside, nearly 75 percent of women who are murdered by their abusers are killed after leaving the relationship. This is a significant societal issue). In a profession largely characterized by “stick to sports” discourse, Gay became arguably the NFL’s most outspoken advocate against arguably the league’s most pressing off-field problem (these statistics might be a little outdated by now, but a 2014 fivethirtyeight report found that the NFL’s arrest rate for domestic violence is four times higher than the arrest rate for all other offenses, which is, frankly, startling). Two years ago, Gay wore purple cleats in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs to honor not only his mother, but victims of domestic violence in general and was summarily fined by the NFL, a tone-deaf and needlessly evil sporting organization, for a “uniform violation.” The $5,700 fine was but a bite-sized portion of Gay’s game check, but it was representative of his willingness to literally and figuratively put his money where his mouth is. Since then, Gay has partnered with Verizon Wireless in their Hopeline program (which provides grants and mobile phones to support groups and domestic violence survivors), delivered keynote speeches at myriad conferences and summits, and taken the time to visit local women’s shelters. And, as his position in Vice President Biden’s Advisory Council exemplifies, the fight to end the scourge of domestic violence is one that Gay intends to continue.

I think I speak for Steelers supporters everywhere when I say that we all wish William Gay the best of luck on his future endeavors, on and off the field. His mom would certainly be proud.