LATROBE, Pa. >> When William Gay calls the Pittsburgh Steelers his “family” and the organization his “home,” the seventh-year defensive back presumably isn’t being literal.
Tell that to his actual family. Apparently, they are.
Even as Gay spent last season with the Arizona Cardinals, those closest to Gay aligned their loyalties with the black and gold over their flesh and blood.
“My family wouldn’t let me get away from the Steelers,” said Gay, who has returned from a one-year so-called “vacation” to rejoin the franchise that drafted him in 2007. “They still flew the Steelers’ flag up in front of the house.
“They didn’t switch to (Cardinals’ colors) red and black. I told them, ‘I’m not with the Steelers no more.’ They didn’t care nothing about that.”
Now Gay that is back with his football family, his real family can root for him again.
“They were pumped when I signed back,” Gay said between training-camp workouts Wednesday at St. Vincent College. “I didn’t even get a chance to tell them. As soon as they saw it, they started calling.”
Gay expressed similar enthusiasm in rejoining a team in which he won the 2009 Super Bowl with and then started for in another Super Bowl game two years later.
Gay has played out of a variety of spots in the defensive backfield and during all 104 regular-season and playoff games his teams have played during his NFL career. He has played 96 consecutive regular-season games, the longest active streak among cornerbacks.
No one knows more about Gay’s dependability and versatility than do the Steelers, who signed him to a one-year contract in March — less than one year after he’d agreed to join the Cardinals after spending his first five NFL seasons with Pittsburgh.
“Right from when I first signed back, it just felt like home,” Gay said. “Now being in training camp, being in Latrobe, is just proving that point. I know where everything is at on campus, just getting the golf cart coming here (to the cafeteria) to eat dinner, lunch, breakfast, all that stuff feels normal to me. It feels good to be back to something that’s normal.”
To Gay, playing any number of positions in the secondary seems normal. Like many young defensive backs, he started out in the dime and nickel packages during his rookie season out of Louisville. The following year, he made his first four career starts at left cornerback opposite longtime Steeler Ike Taylor.
In 2009, he entered the season as the starter, but a mediocre Steelers season had him back in a nickel role by the end of the 9-7 campaign. Gay played largely out of the slot in 2010 before leaving as a free agent that offseason to sign a reported two-year, $3.2 million contract with Arizona.
Gay started 15 of the 16 games for the Cardinals during his one-year sabbatical in the desert — one Taylor playfully called Gay’s “vacation.”
“It just felt like Will went on a vacation,” Taylor said. “Now he came back.”
The Steelers went 55-25 during Gay’s first five seasons on the team. With the Cardinals, it was a much different feeling.
“Going 5-11, you kind of know that you’re not making the playoffs,” Gay said. “So, yeah, you could say that’s a vacation.”
A long one — and one that left Gay feeling homesick. So when the Cardinals released him in March, it didn’t take long for him to find a new (old) team. Gay inked a one-year deal to come “home.”
“The structure here is like family,” said Gay, a Florida native. “You have family itself in the Rooneys, and they really love the players and love the coaches — it’s not just some business where we’re all just in it to make money. This is family-oriented, and that’s why players always want to come back — it reminds them so much of being home in their hometown.”
Linebacker Larry Foote is the most striking example. He left the Steelers after the 2009 Super Bowl for what he thought was greener pastures in his literal hometown of Detroit.
After a woeful 2-14 season with the Lions, though, Foote was back in black-and-gold.
“Before I left I heard other people come from other places who said this is a special place,” Foote said. “And when I went to Detroit, I found out firsthand.
“I don’t even have to ask (Gay) a question — I hear him telling other guys about how he didn’t enjoy it at the other place. It’s a family atmosphere here, and it starts from up top.”
Gay’s (re-)signing by the Steelers was necessitated by the departure of Keenan Lewis, who left to sign a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints. Lewis had taken Gay’s job as the starting left cornerback last season.
Gay likely won’t earn back the designation of the so-called “No. 2 corner” — the Steelers are high on third-year Cortez Allen — but that doesn’t mean he won’t ever line up at left cornerback.
“Wherever you want to put Will, you can do,” Taylor said. “Nickel, dime, free safety, corner. It opens the playbook for us as a secondary.”
Gay said that weekly game plans and matchups against opponents dictate what positions the Steelers defensive backs will play. Gay also isn’t getting caught up in who is listed as a starter, rightly pointing out that in today’s game, five or six defensive backs per play is the norm.
“The only role I know about is just winning,” Gay said. “We can’t go 8-8 no more. That’s the role I want to be a part of — bringing back a winning record and also getting to the Super Bowl.
Notes: Rookie DE Nick Williams left practice because of a knee injury. … The Steelers took part in live tackling drills, something that was a rarity in the past. Tomlin said because the collective bargaining agreement has dictated days off and banned two-a-days, he needed an extra manner in which to evaluate players using contact.