Chuck Noll would say it was time to get on with life’s work. Semisonic would say you don’t gotta go home but you can’t stay here. No matter how you slice it, William Gay is no longer a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Can I be honest? That sucks. That really sucks.
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It’s football. Happens to everyone. But seeing Gay get his pink slip feels like a bad breakup. Or…stubbing your toe on the side of your couch. Man, it hurts.
Gay was, and I know it sounds cliche, what it meant to be a Steeler. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest, strongest. Adrian Peterson turned him into a speed bump. What he lacked in physical traits he more than made up for in his football IQ. Five pick six’s don’t just happen. And Peterson aside, he was a sure tackler back when the Steelers put larger priority on that than anything else.
There was remarkable consistency in Gay’s game on and off the field. On it, he never missed a game. Ever. 176 possible games, 176 played. And he isn’t a kicker, punter, long snapper, guy at work everyone forgot about. This is a corner we’re talking about. Missing a practice was enough to create a buzz. And a game? Literally unheard of.
Needed him to play outside corner? No problem. How about a move to the slot? Can do. Last year, he essentially became a sub-package free safety. He lost his starting job to Mike Hilton but was never an issue in the locker room for it. He found a new home, adapted, and mentored the guy who took his place.
“As a teammate you want to win ball games and try to win a championship,” he told the PPG’s Ray Fittipaldo in January. “I don’t give a dang if I’m out there or not. I’m going to be out there mentally or physically. Of course, you want to be out there physically so you can put your hand in the pile. But either way I plan on being out there.”
That’s a guy who just wants to win. Wants to help. Someone willing to accept a reserve role which certainly wasn’t true with every player on the roster last season.
But there was consistency off the field too. There are few guys in the league who are as high character as him. A leader in the room, no trouble off the field. Instead, he advocated for domestic violence prevention. Whether that was sympbolic, like wearing his purple cleats, or action-oriented, like teaming up with politicians earlier this year.
Remember the league’s My Cause, My Cleats event where for the last two years, for one week, every player is able to wear cleats in honor to a charity of their choice? That was implemented in 2016 but Gay was talking about the idea a year prior.
“Ben Roethlisberger came up with the idea to allow each team to have one cause that affects the community that we play in and have each player be able to represent that. Another idea, and one I feel strongly about, is to allow every player in the league one amnesty week—one game during which they can support their cause through a shoe color or eye-black and not have any consequences. Where is the harm in that?”
Gay is a tether to the roots of Mike Tomlin’s head coaching career. He’s the last one on the Steelers roster from the 2007 draft class. Lawrence Timmons, in a cruel reminder of the NFL, was released yesterday. Gay is expected to be officially gone tomorrow. The rest of the draft class are names you’d like to forget (LaMarr Woodley) or ones you don’t remember (Cameron Stephenson, Ryan McBean). No picks remain on the team from either 2008 or 2009, which I guess around the NFL, isn’t that uncommon but it’s sort of a sobering thought.
He began his Steelers career as the whipping boy. Never did he reach an elite status but largely, the fanbase warmed up to him and saw the value he held. If this is the end of his football career, he’s said he has plans on becoming a coach. He’ll have an equally long and successful career there as he did on the field.