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Looking Through Bulletproof Windows

Steelers cornerback William Gay volunteers at a Pittsburgh shelter for battered and abused women, but he’s more than a football player just stopping by. His mother was fatally shot by his stepfather, and he wants the NFL to fully understand the gravity of domestic violence

Steelers cornerback William Gay (John Middlebrook/Cal Sport Media)

John Middlebrook/Cal Sport Media

By William Gay


I loved my mother. Carolyn Hall was a hard-working woman. She had a full-time job working for the state of Florida, and she was the breadwinner in our home. She took care of my stepfather, my two brothers and me. We grew up in the projects in Tallahassee, and we didn’t have a lot, but we had her. Every night she made sure we all had dinner, did our homework, stayed out of trouble, went to bed and got to school in the morning. She somehow found a way to do it all. My mom was a wonderful woman.

But I had no idea what was going on behind closed doors. I was 8 when my mother died. I was told, years later, that she was trying to get out. That she had finally found the strength to walk away from an abusive relationship that I had no idea about—at the time I didn’t even know what domestic violence was. My stepfather wouldn’t let her go, and things escalated. He shot her three times before killing himself.

My grandma took us all in. She did the best she could to raise us and keep us together, but it was tough. For a long time, I acted out. I didn’t care about school and I was on a bad track. I had an attitude, and a huge chip on my shoulder. All I kept thinking was, Why me? Why take my mom? What did I do wrong? I eventually got things straightened out, but it was hard.

I found football to be an outlet for me. My uncle gave me an ultimatum: straighten up or I'd have football taken away. I didn’t want to stop playing football, so I stepped up in the classroom to get good grades.

My mother finally found the strength to walk away. My stepfather wouldn’t let her go, and things escalated. He shot her three times before killing himself.

When I went to college at Louisville, I didn’t really talk about my situation. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, or to think I was making excuses, like, Oh, that’s the guy who grew up without any parents. In my first few years in the NFL, I was the same way. I just wanted to be known as a hard worker and I wanted to be strong, like my mom.

A few years ago, however, somebody told me about an organization that helps women who have been affected by domestic violence. I had seen first-hand how it can shake a family, but honestly, I was surprised to learn that there are organizations solely devoted to helping battered women and their families. I know my mom didn’t know. If she knew there was a way she could get help, she might still be alive.

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Ever since I realized this, I’ve made domestic violence my cause. In the offseason I speak about it to help raise awareness. I also routinely visit a women’s shelter in Pittsburgh. I usually try to go twice during the season, around the holidays, too. Families can only stay there about 30 days, but they’re there because they’re in dire need of help.

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I love going there and hearing people’s stories. We tend to call them victims, but I call them heroes. They’ve gotten themselves out of a bad situation. I help out with whatever they need, and I also play with the kids. They know I play for the Steelers, but once they hear my story, they open up to me. I’m not just some football player dropping in, and the trust they have in me is the most rewarding part. Learning about the shelter has been a blessing, because going there is how I’ve grown into a man in this league.

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Last year, I was with a couple teammates and the issue of domestic violence came up. Someone said, “What if you found out your teammate or your friend was beating up his wife or girlfriend? Would you intervene?”

The answers were mixed. Some said yes, but others said no—that it should be none of our business, stay out of other people’s personal lives.

I don’t care who you are, if I find out you are hurting a woman, I’m going to say something and I’m going to do something about it.

That’s the problem. Answers like that are why domestic violence is still an issue. I told everyone, “Look, I don’t care who you are, if I find out you are hurting a woman, I’m going to say something to you and I’m going to do something about it.” In our society, grown men are taught to mind their own business and that it’s not OK to get involved. We need to figure out a way to fix that trend.

A lot of it begins with awareness. It’s sad that it took a few high-profile cases for everyone to realize how serious this issue is, but I am glad we are talking about it. The NFL is so big and so influential; if we can make a change, it can affect other parts of society, too.

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A lot of people have asked me for my thoughts about the Ray Rice situation. They want to know if I think the punishment has been fair. With all due respect to the commissioner, I couldn’t care less about what the punishment was. My concern is not about how many games Ray Rice is going to play or not play. This isn’t about games or football; it’s about the bigger picture. It’s about life itself. If that situation had escalated, the woman could have died and a little girl could have grown up without a mother.

If we’re going to fix this problem in the NFL, our focus can’t be solely on what the punishments should be. The main priority needs to be helping victims—to show them how they can be heroes. The league needs to be asking, Why is this occurring? And how can we help prevent this? The NFL needs to focus on setting up programs that can help men and women have healthy relationships. Let players know about what facilities or services are available. We, as players, need to continue talking about this. Keep the issue of domestic violence in the conversation to raise awareness. That’s where our energy needs to be.

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The women’s shelter in Pittsburgh is not in a great neighborhood. It’s an all white building, with no signs or anything outside. There are just two small doors, and each only opens if the other is closed. All the windows are bulletproof.

Some of my teammates have joined me on visits there over the years. Ike Taylor really embraces it—he’s been back a few times—and I like to take the rookie defensive backs. Before they go, I explain the set up. Everyone is always shocked when they find out about the bulletproof windows. I don’t think a lot of guys realize domestic violence can be a life-or-death issue.

When they go, I can see how humbled they are. It really opens their eyes and gives them a sense of perspective. We think losing a game is a big problem—it’s good to care about your job and your team, but there are bigger issues in life. You tend to hear about domestic violence here and there, often in passing reference. But now that it has directly affected our league in such a public way, I hope all of us in the NFL can take the next steps to help prevent it.