William Gay lives and breathes football. Like most cornerbacks in the NFL, his energy goes into pouring everything onto the field — especially since he’s a part of a playoff-caliber team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when game day is over, Gay’s energy goes toward advocating against domestic violence, a subject matter that hits close to home.
The 33-year-old turned the pain he’s been carrying since 1992 into motivation, all in the name of his late mother, Carolyn Hall, who was killed by her boyfriend when he was just 8 years old.
He’s been vocal about his personal journey in the past few years. Now he is partnering with former vice president Joe Biden in an initiative that will address these issues.
Thursday, the Biden Foundation named Gay to its Advisory Council, which focuses on ending sexual assault and violence against women, among other causes.
As an Advisory Council member, Gay joins a prominent group of leaders, experts and advocates who have been selected to serve as ambassadors for the Biden Foundation, guiding strategic partnerships to create societal change.
“I received a letter, and when I saw ‘Joe Biden’ on it, I’m like, ‘OK, this might be a false letter,’ ” Gay told The Undefeated. “But then my agent told me about it and then the NFL also told me about, so then I was like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ His ideas are similar to what I have going on, what my beliefs are, and trying to end domestic violence. I was glad he thought of me. I jumped at the opportunity — not as quick as I wanted to, because I got the invite during the season and I’m 100 percent about football. So I tried to focus in on the playoffs, but I was all excited for the opportunity to be invited on the advisory committee.”
A longtime champion for victims of domestic violence, Gay believes in the Biden Foundation’s commitment to bringing together diverse voices who can uniquely speak to groups that will change the culture.
On Friday, Gay and Biden will link up to discuss their commitment to empowering men and women alike to stop sexual assault on college campuses. The duo will speak at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values Central 2018 in Indianapolis.
“We have to start engaging in conversations where we hold each other, and ourselves, accountable,” Gay said. “We hope to spur some of those discussions today and keep them going as we work toward a safer tomorrow.”
The Biden Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation established to carry on the former vice president and his wife’s lifelong commitment to public service. Through educational programming and public policy analysis, the foundation works to build a world where all people are equal in dignity and opportunity.
“It’s on all of us to change the culture on our college campuses, in our locker rooms and in our frat houses so that sexual assault is never accepted. We all must stand up and stop inappropriate behavior,” Biden said. “Men must be part of this solution and conversation. William understands what is at stake when we remain silent on abuse. He gets it and is using his platform to work to end domestic and sexual violence. That’s why I am so proud to have him join my foundation’s Advisory Council and partner with us as we work to create a culture where all live free from violence.”
Gay says he is eager to join this platform with Biden.
“This is all I’ve been preaching, for everybody to just come together and realize that this is dangerous,” Gay said. “You can talk about it, you can do something about it. It’s not embarrassing to let someone know or to try to help someone. The more you talk about it, the more you get people comfortable, that’s the first ring of trying to eliminate these problems.”
Gay’s crusade for ending domestic violence has all been in the name of his late mother.
“What drives me is my mother’s story, and this is a way, one, to keep her voice alive; two, just to help someone who is either in their situation or as a child in the same situation, give that encouragement that there are better things out there in the world. As a kid, there’s no like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over because I don’t have parents.’ And for anyone who is in that violent situation or the sexual assault situation, there are people out there who would help. I don’t think my mom knew people that would help, because this was back in 1992. This is my way of allowing her story to stay alive, her to be alive, and also her story helps someone else.”
After Hall was killed, her boyfriend shot himself. Gay and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother Corine Hall.
“From 8 to about 12-13, I just felt like I was alone, didn’t care,” Gay said. “Even though my grandmother took me and my two brothers in, I just felt like a loner, because when you go to school, you see kids’ parents picking them up, and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I was just against everything.”
Gay says the hardest part of his journey is not having his mother around for major accomplishments.
“I had a loving family. My grandma did what she could to make sure that we felt loved, but it’s just those milestones. The high school graduation, the picking my college, the graduating from college, to getting drafted, going to the Super Bowl and, you know, just all these accolades that I attained and, you know, she wasn’t present. And I know if she was here, she would be front row or even on the stage with me.”
Gay’s uncle was his role model growing up.
“He was just blunt,” Gay said. “He said, ‘If you keep on this path, or being mad at the world, or wanting to being a bad child or thug, or what have you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail. You’re also not going to be able to play football.’ I was 12 years old, but it stuck with me through every journey in my life.”
He said he had a “whole team” of people, including family, teachers and coaches, who took him in.
“[They] saw the potential in me and knew that I needed just a little help to get where I’m going,” Gay said.
Football helped Gay manage his feelings, and he found a safe haven in the sport. It’s been so much a part of his life he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a football.
“Probably 2, 3 …,” he said. “Football was always in our family. My older brother played, my uncles played. Just sports in general because where we were living, you weren’t staying in the house, you had to go outside. As long as it was hot in Florida, we played football. I officially started loving the game when I was 9 or 10. That was a safe place for me. That was my safe haven for me, even at a young age. I just knew when I went out there, I got away from problems. I didn’t have to think about I don’t have a mom. I’m out here having fun, and I’m competing.”
From this experience with Biden, Gay wants the public to focus on the outcomes and beating the odds of domestic violence than dismal statistics surrounding the subject.
“I always tell people I ain’t big on numbers. I love math, but when it comes down to statistics, I beat those odds, so I don’t even talk about statistics. What I talk about is real-life numbers, examples of people who’d been through it. That’s what I want people to get out. This is not coming from a book. This is coming from a written life, and I just want the realness of it, and that’s what people who are going through it want to see. They don’t want to see, ‘Oh, well, this doctor, he has five different degrees, or this person has eight different degrees and they’re telling me this and that, but they don’t really know what I’m going through.’
“I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise or take the right path.”