When Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay was 7-years-old, his world came crashing down around him when his beloved mother was fatally shot by his stepfather.
Carolyn Hall had attempted to leave the abusive relationship she was in with Gay’s stepfather when he found her, shot her, then killed himself, leaving Gay without a mother.
His loving grandmother raised him, but the pain of that tragic day never left Gay.
“Up until I was 12-years-old, I was going down the wrong path,” Gay, 30, tells PEOPLE. “When you lose a parent at a young age, you kind of lose direction.”
The hurt and anger that Gay felt inside ended up crippling him.
“I didn’t know which way to go. I started seeing evil and thinking the world was against me, so I didn’t really trust anybody, and I didn’t really care for anybody,” he says.
Gay had even given up in school when he finally found his turning point: football.
“Football took me away from all the evil and helped me grow into a man,” he says.
That man went on to receive a scholarship to the University of Louisville before entering the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice for the Steelers in 2007. One year later, he had a Super Bowl ring on his finger.
Despite all the success he’s found on the field, Gay says his best work is done behind the scenes. For years, he has quietly visited the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, where he speaks to victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
“That s why I love sports so dearly, because it helped me go in the right direction and gave me the platform I have today to share my mother s story,” he says. “I want people out there to know that someone in the NFL has been that child who lost their mother and is willing to do anything to end domestic violence.”
His visits to the shelter have been a form of therapy for him as well.
“Just listening to their stories and telling my mother’s story – it was a coping mechanism for me. They helped me let out my feelings. I started going back and hanging out with them, and anybody who wanted to talk, I was ready to share my mother’s story with them,” he says.
Gay’s passion for advocacy has led him to team up with Verizon for their HopeLine program, which has collected millions of phones to support non-profit domestic violence organizations since 2001. The program also donates cell phones to domestic violence shelters for use by victims and survivors.
“It sounds so simple, but it allows victims and survivors to connect with loved ones with a private line or simply have a way to communicate with a hotline,” Gay says.
In addition to speaking with mothers who survived domestic abuse, he also has advice to children who witness domestic abuse at home.
“Tell someone. Don’t be afraid, you know right from wrong. And talk about it. Don’t hold it in because it can destroy you – that’s what it almost did for me.”
As Gay prepares to enter into his ninth year with the NFL, he’ll continue to use his star power as a vehicle to stop domestic abuse, especially as programs are put in place to resolve the current domestic violence issue that exists within the league.
“We should all come together and end it – every race, male, female – let’s focus on the world. We need to stop it as a whole,” he adds.