By Christina Rivers

William Gay played a huge role in the victory over the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The eight year cornerback had three tackles during the week one game and defended two critical passes, helping the Steelers earn their first win of the 2014 NFL Season. While Gay has been a more vocal leader on the field, his recent sentiments towards Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens shows that the guy has a big heart, despite his rivalry with Baltimore and his own personal demons.

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As a veteran player, Gay understands how crucial it is this week to prepare for a division rivalry that is one of the NFL’s most heated battles, earning it a spot on the first week of CBS Sports’ “Thursday Night Football” on prime-time. Gay sees communication being a big key to success on the field. “The (Cleveland) game we had to get our communication down and our signals and just getting lined up (properly),” said Gay. “But it’s the beginning of the season so things like that can happen. That’s why we have practice. We can’t wait to get back to practice and get those things ironed out.”

Teammate Cam Heyward praised Gay for his open communication, especially in getting younger guys lined up into their proper positions. “I’m one of the older guys so I just need to help…,” Gay admitted, laughing. “But as a team we just all like to help each other out. That’s our family bond that we have.”

The man, who has never missed a football game in his professional career and has set the longest active streak in the NFL at his position for playing in 112 of them consecutively, shows that he isn’t all about lining guys up in their proper places or giving guidance on the field. After growing up in a home with a single mother who was trying to keep up a healthy appearance for Gay (who was seven at the time) and his siblings while being victimized by her boyfriend, Gay took the news of Ravens running back Ray Rice’s newest video release hard. He didn’t react the way many people have in response to the TMZ video showing Rice punching his now-wife in the head and knocking her out in an elevator. Instead, Gay opened his heart and offered his assistance while communicating his dislike for Rice’s actions.

“Well, first and foremost, I’m totally against domestic violence,” Gay admitted publicly. Gay’s mother eventually left her abusive boyfriend and went to a friend’s house only to be discovered there and to be shot three times, killing her. The boyfriend then shot himself. Gay and his siblings were then raised by his grandmother. “That was wrong of (Rice). But at the end of the day you don’t need to run away from Ray Rice. He needs help, so we have to do everything that we can do to help him.”

The stories of troubled NFL players isn’t a new one, but unfortunately the trend of violence, drug usage and results of ineffectual policies set by the league (or not set) have been tragic, tried in the court of public and fan opinion and have shown hypocrisy from even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFL’s player conduct policies have been too long without any clear or definitive instructions on what to do with troubled players outside of usage of banned substances. In fact, the NFL only recently created a policy dealing with domestic abuse after the initial release of information that Rice had been involved in an altercation with his fiancé at the time. The NFL did not take further action than a suspension – John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, did by releasing Rice from the team – but it was only after the second video came out.  

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“(The Rice incident) just lets you know that domestic violence is real,” said Gay. “Domestic violence is real in the NFL and we need to get help. We’re not immune to it.” Gay did not specifically say that he felt that Rice has a mental illness, but the reference to getting help was made clear when he added that Rice needs life help, not simply punishment by the league. “It’s bigger. My mom passed away [due to domestic violence]. We’re not talking about a game. She lost her life. So that’s the help that I’m talking about.” Gay went on to add that he hoped that prayers would lead Rice and his wife through a tough situation and that Ray would get better.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults – approximately 61.5 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year; one in 17 (around 13.6 million) live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. One half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three quarters by the age of 24. Despite there being effective treatments available, there are often delays to that treatment and decades of misdiagnosis, ambivalence towards options and the stigma that to admit to needing help makes the one suffering appear or even become weak.  Those numbers show that even NFL players would be included.

While the league claims there is no damning evidence that concussions play a part in mental changes that could cause domestic abuse, many former NFL players have made statements regarding concussions altering their mental state.  Their statements have been backed by The Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) and Boston University who confirmed that Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Shane Dronett had such deep depression that they killed themselves.  Mood changes, lack of impulse control, mental confusion and memory loss can be a part of the symptoms. Substance abuse is often seen in players who experience the symptoms as well.

Ray Rice was one of the first opponents to the NFL rule in 2013 that ‘outlawed’ using the crown of a helmet by running backs against defenders outside of the tackle box.  At the time, Rice said, “Not one running back, you ask anyone in the league, not one is going to change their game.  People are just going to have to deal with the consequences the first couple years.”  It is unclear if Rice suffers from any ongoing issues related to concussions or head trauma, but his actions appear to be consistent, but not excusable, if his style of play played a part in his lapse of good judgment or lack of impulse control in that now-famed elevator.

Although Gay will be playing his heart out at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore Thursday night, you know that part of his heart will always be missing his mother, taken so tragically away from him, and his mind will at least wander once or twice to thoughts of Ray Rice. Gay has earned respect from his teammates for being a good communicator and one can only hope that his message got through to Rice and football fans about looking a little deeper at the off-field lives of players and sharing hope and help to those who are troubled so that more lives are not negatively impacted.  By sharing, Gay leads the Steelers family in a new way.

For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.

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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on