PITTSBURGH -- William Gay thinks it was the interception. Or, more accurately, the funky two-step he performed as he danced the interception into the end zone Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, folks noticed the bright purple cleats the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback was wearing -- and suddenly, folks wanted to know why.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and purple is the flag-coloring hue used to promote domestic violence awareness. It has now been some two decades since Gay's mother was shot and killed by her husband, making her a victim of the all-too-often-quieted kind of violence.
"We never knew," Gay said of himself and his stepbrothers, and of the abuse he eventually learned his mother, Carolyn Hall, suffered at the hands of his stepfather. When Gay was a child, he said, his mother attempted to leave; his stepfather found her, shot her, then killed himself, leaving three boys without parents and igniting a certainty in Gay that he would always work to pull back the curtain that hides this one type of hurt.
And so he wears the cleats.
Gay is an eighth-year pro, a former fifth-round pick by the Steelers who's spent all but one year of his career in Pittsburgh. After a stint with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, Gay returned to the Steelers last year to help stabilize their secondary. This season, he's been a force, compiling 28 tackles and seven pass breakups.
He wore the cleats in the Steelers' Week 7 win over the Texans on "Monday Night Football" and pulled them out this past Sunday for Pittsburgh's thrashing of the Colts. Gay was playing in his 120th consecutive game -- the longest such active streak for an NFL defensive back -- but his 33-yard pick-six of Andrew Luck was what brought the spotlight to his purple footwear. Afterward, fellow cornerback Ike Taylor told reporters he'd pay any fine the league imposed on Gay for a uniform violation, because Gay's message was one worth highlighting. (According to a league spokesperson, a first offense for a uniform violation usually nets a $5,512 fine.)
"I'm not trying to be a bad teammate or embarrass the owners," Gay said Thursday. "There's so much pink -- on shoes, on gloves -- for breast cancer awareness; I think domestic violence awareness is just as important."
Gay has worked with the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh for close to five years, he said, and he's spoken at countless seminars about domestic violence. Earlier this year, when then-Ravens running back Ray Ricewas suspended indefinitely after video surfaced of him striking his then-fiancee (who is now his wife), Gay spoke movingly and at length in the Steelers' locker room about his mother's death. He refused to condemn Rice or Panthers end Greg Hardy -- who is on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List as he awaits a jury trial following his appeal of a conviction on domestic violence charges -- and instead talked about educating men who perpetrate violence, and about offering them help.
"I've been telling my story since the first time I went to a shelter five years ago," he said. "Now that it's happening in the NFL, people are paying attention. With Ray Rice, I don't want to point any fingers. I just want to tell him my story, and how my life was changed because of domestic violence."
Gay says when he first went to the Women's Center in Pittsburgh, "it was therapy for me. It was humbling to see how many people do care about people being hurt."
Now he wants even more people to care. And if there is a bigger platform and a bigger spotlight because of high-profile incidences of domestic violence, then Gay wants to seize the opportunity. Two weeks ago, he announced plans to help promote the "RUSafe" mobile app, which uses GPS technology to connect potential victims to the closest domestic violence hotline, or to 911. His story, and how he came to share his story, is one of the featured videos in the presentation the league is currently making to teams as part of its domestic violence and sexual assault education. And Gay said in the offseason he hopes to have conversations with the league's decision-makers, to pursue the possibility the NFL mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month as it does Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But for now, as he focuses on the Steelers' revived season, he wages his own small awareness campaign -- with his cleats.
Gay escaped a fine last week, and he thinks he might have slid by again this week. The FedEx envelopes from the league office generally come on Wednesdays, he said, and his locker on Thursday was still free of any ominous mail. But whether Taylor covers any penalty or not, Gay said he wore the shoes knowing full well he could be assessed a fine -- and knowing full well he'd feel no sorrow about paying one.
"We get fined for other negative reasons. I'd rather get fined for that: a positive reason," he said. "People used to think, 'That's their business,' or, 'I don't want to get into that man's business.' I've learned that's not how we should think. It's all our business."
As for Taylor, he said he'll continue to support Gay in every effort he makes to raise awareness. For him, it's simple.
"William's trying to keep his mom alive," Taylor said. "I want to help him do that."
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Domestic Violence hotline at