While there was a one-year detour, William Gay, a fifth-round draft pick in the same class that included a punter in the fourth round, proved to be the last man standing for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s inaugural draft class back in 2007.
Considering that he carved out an 11-year career for himself and at the age of 33 still hopes to play one more season, that was not a bad selection by any means. Gay certainly had his ebbs and flows over the course of the past decade-plus of his professional life—and the fans let him know all about it—but he has had a big impact on the team over that span of time.
And he is leaving behind a void that will be missed, even if it is one that has gradually become more about what he brought off the field and in the locker room than what he did on it, even if he was preserved in a dime role last season.
Tomlin liked to point to Gay when he was trying to explain certain things to younger players about how to do things the right way, whether it was about a certain technique, how to watch tape and study tendencies, how to take care of your body, or just how to live your life.
Pretty much every young defensive back that the team has brought in over the past several years has talked about how much of an influence the ‘old man’ was for them as they transitioned into the NFL, and into the city of Pittsburgh.
After all, few have been through it all the way Gay has in his professional career. As a late-round pick, he spent his first season in the league pretty much as a special-teamer, but an injury to Bryant McFadden during the 2008 season thrust him for a time in a starting role.
That cameo spot so compelled the team that they were comfortable letting McFadden walk in free agency the following year and allowing Gay to start. That proved to be a mistake. Gay wasn’t quite ready yet (and he got trucked by Adrian Peterson, which he still hears about).
The Steelers demoted him, starting Deshea Townsend at the end of the year, and traded again for McFadden, who started in 2010. But he suffered an injury in the 2011 opener and Gay took over for the rest of the year. He would leave in free agency, but then would be cut for the first time in his career and return ‘home’ to Pittsburgh, where he was welcomed after the doldrums of the 2012 season.
From then on, he would play just about any role imaginable, starting in the nickel but then moving outside after injuries mounted, once with Cortez Allen, then Ike Taylor. As recently as 2016, Gay opened the season as a full-time starter on the outside, but his defensive responsibilities have gradually diminished over the course of the next two seasons.
In releasing Gay now, perhaps they will do him a favor, giving him an opportunity to sign with another team for one more season that will afford him the opportunity of some greater amount of playing time. Failing that, there are a number of paths he can pursue as he gets on with his life’s work, one of which may even lead him back to football, and the Steelers, again.
It has been a rollercoaster career for Gay, during which he has experienced just about every high and low of success and failure, love and hatred, developing a complicated relationship with both the fanbase and the media. As the ride comes to a stop, it’s worth appreciating where we’ve been.