- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The darkest moments of William Gay’s childhood intersect with hope each time he visits the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.

Robbed of his mother at age 7 by domestic violence, the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has advocated for the shelter long before incidents involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson forced the NFL to pay better attention to abuse.

He’s appeared in the shelter’s public service announcements, endorsed its safety app and traveled around the country speaking about the plight of abused women and children.

Each year at Christmastime, he hosts a dinner for the shelter’s clients - a rotating group of about 40 women and children who have fled violence and are looking for a permanent, peaceful home.

“Every time I go, It’s like a new beginning,” Gay says.

What most of the women and children don’t know is that Gay needs this time as much as they do.

For nearly two decades after he lost his mother, he felt that if he just kept the pain inside long enough it would finally disappear. Instead, it became part of him, affecting his everyday interactions in a world of happy parents and children that he simply could not comprehend.

“I don’t know if you know my story, but my mom passed away from domestic violence,” Gay tells the group. “So to see ya’ll get out of situations, I call ya’ll heroes. My mom, unfortunately, she couldn’t get out of the situation. She lost her life to it. For you guys to bring your kids here, it’s just tremendous.”

When Gay first expressed interest in learning more about the shelter, neither the shelter’s development director, Barbara Nicholas, nor Steelers community relations manager Michele Rosenthal knew about his mother.

He said he just wanted to eat dinner with the victims and get a sense of the place, but once he began hearing their stories, something came over him. His words poured out, and they haven’t stopped since.

After all those years, William Gay was free. But if he was going to start telling his story, it was time to find out the truth.

Gay had never asked questions.

His mother was there for him one day, and then she wasn’t. What did the details matter? William Gay had bought into a message given by the elders in his family that was meant to help a young boy put one foot in front of the other: The world was not fair, and nobody was going to feel sorry for him.

Now, he was coming for answers. Gay returned to Tallahassee, Florida after his first visit to the shelter and sought out his uncles and his grandmother, Corine Hall, who raised him.

He did not remember more than the basics about his mother, Carolyn Hall Bryant. They didn’t have much, but she worked to give him and his brothers the things they wanted. By not talking about her, year after year, her image had become blurry, her voice faint. Gay was there to bring her back to life.

“When I went home, that’s all I wanted to know about,” he says. “What happened, why did it happen, where were we when it happened.”

Carolyn had recently married Vernon Bryant, the father of her third son, Verterris. At age 30, she worked in an office for the state of Florida and had become deeply religious.

She and Vernon fought often. One uncle told Gay that he knew Carolyn and Vernon were having issues, but they always had viewed Carolyn as tough, able to handle anything that came her way. So, he stayed out of it.

That was one thing Gay kept hearing: Nobody felt it was any of their business - a tired refrain in domestic violence cases.

March 14, 1992, was a sunny Saturday.

Carolyn dropped the boys off at their grandmother’s house and walked down the street to visit a friend. She was considering leaving Vernon. He tracked her down and shot her five times. Then he killed himself.

Family took William and his brothers to the hospital. This was the part of the story that he could always remember. The boys wanted to see their mother, but they were told they couldn’t. They didn’t understand why.

“After that, they told me that my mother passed away,” Gay says. “I thought life was over.”

Corine took Gay and his siblings into her home. They were angry and confused.

“My grandmother couldn’t control us,” Gay says. “I was just enraged, not caring about nothing.”

To give herself and the boys a chance, Corine moved out of Tallahassee’s South Side project. They stuffed nine people into a small four-bedroom home, where William’s temper didn’t subside. He had been taught to swallow his grief, and there was no telling when it would rear its ugly head. In junior high, school officials lost patience with his constant fighting and threatened expulsion.

His Uncle Gene told William that if he didn’t start behaving, he was going to end up dead or in jail. But what really stuck with William?

“You won’t play football anymore,” Uncle Gene had threatened.

No football?

The game was the one thing that had brought him joy and a sense of belonging. When he did something good on the field, people cheered for him. William was not going to let that be taken from him, too.

He stayed out of trouble and became a star quarterback and defensive back at Tallahassee’s Rickards High. When he would make a big play, he would point to the sky.

Those were moments shared between just him and his mother.

William, at 5 feet 10 inches tall, was not going to make the recruiting list for hometown Florida State. So he and six of his teammates compiled a video of their highlights on their own and sent copies of it across the country. William’s tape jumped out, and he accepted a scholarship to Louisville.

There, away from home for the first time, he was on fast forward. He became one of the best players in the Big East and graduated with a degree in sports administration in just three and a half years.

Still, he wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine or any senior all-star games. He worked out at Louisville’s on-campus pro day, and his agent told him he’d likely be a high-priority undrafted free agent.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really think about the NFL,” Gay says. “Yeah, that was a dream when I was young. But when I got to school, I knew a degree would bring a lot of opportunities. I was ready to go back home and work, get into coaching.”

On draft day in 2007, there was no big gathering. Gay was half-watching at his grandmother’s house when his phone started buzzing and his name scrolled on the bottom of the screen: The Steelers had taken him in the fifth round.

Hours later, Corine’s backyard was packed with family, and the meat was on the grill. Fifteen years after her death shattered him, Carolyn’s middle son was headed for the NFL.

William Gay was at home on Sept. 8 when he saw the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice striking his fiancee with his fist in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

“I was very shocked,” Gay says. “You never see it coming.”

That day, when Gay arrived at the Steelers facility, he was approached by team officials who warned him that reporters would want to talk to him about Rice. Gay had come a long way since he first told his story publicly five years ago, and he assured them that he was ready for it. He knew one thing: He wasn’t going to vilify Rice.

“Someone could have died, that’s all,” Gay said then. “That’s how I feel about the situation, so we need to do everything we can to help Ray Rice. Because we don’t need to run away from him and say he’s evil. It’s an issue, we need to deal with it, and we need to help Ray Rice and his (wife) to be better from it.”

Now that domestic violence is being more freely discussed, Gay has been able to step forward as a leader. His face was featured in several NFL public service announcements with the theme “No More,” and, on Oct. 26, he wore purple cleats during the Steelers’ win over the Colts because purple is the color of the cause against domestic violence. He has received attention for pointing to his mother in the sky after his franchise-record three interceptions returned for touchdown.

In November, the Steelers named Gay their Walter Payton Man of the Year, which nominates him for the league-wide award, given to players who best serve their communities. During his bye week, he returned to Tallahassee to hand out turkeys and Thanksgiving fixings to 500 local families. The bill was $16,000.

That day, as he and his family manned the assembly line, Corine Hall, now 84, looked on from the community center’s bleachers. She said that watching him do for others makes her happy.

About a year ago, Gay bought her a new house, which quickly became the family meeting place. These days, when he and his brothers get together, they can talk about what happened to their mother. Sometimes, it gets emotional, but at least everything is out in the open.

“To see William, his success, it helps all of us,” his Uncle Gene says. “You get some of the effects of it.”

The Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh is benefiting, too. At Gay’s holiday dinner, he moved around to speak with the women and play with the kids, each of whom received a few presents he provided. He and two teammates who joined him, fellow defensive backs Will Allen and Cortez Allen, stayed to sign autographs.

Sure, Gay would have been OK without the NFL. But he knows it gave him this opportunity.

“Maybe it was for this reason,” he says. “I was never the guy to want to stand in front of the camera and get all the praise for coming up in domestic violence, because I didn’t live it. My mom did. So that’s what I’m using that platform for, to keep her voice alive.”

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Online: http://bit.ly/1B1RqBt

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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