Where are they now: William Gay

William Gay's instincts have warned him when change was coming in his football career.

As a rookie, he knew he wasn't going to be around long as a tight end in the Denver Broncos' training camp when he sized up his competition.

Despite being a second-round draft pick out of Southern Cal in 1978, there were too many tight ends getting practice reps ahead of him. Someone had to go, and it was Gay.

He was traded to the Detroit Lions in exchange for safety Charlie West and a future sixth-round draft pick.

Gay wasn't with the Lions long before he got an inkling that he'd be on the move.

He was right again, but this time it wasn't a change in teams. It was a position switch – from tight end to defensive line.

The outcome proved to be a win for Gay and a win for the Lions.

Gay, 66, ended up playing the first 10 of his 11 NFL seasons with the Lions and developed into a Pro Bowler on the Silver Rush defensive line.

Gay was a good fit on a defensive line that was one of the NFL's dominant units. Gay had the athleticism and versatility to play left and right end, and he could move inside to tackle.

The Fearsome Foursome of the 1960s, made up of Roger Brown, Alex Karras, Sam Williams and Darris McCord might have achieved more national notoriety.

But the Silver Rush isn't far behind in Lions lore – if it's behind at all – with Bubba Baker, Doug English, Dave Pureifory, John Woodcock already creating havoc on opposing offenses before Gay joined the unit.

As he had done in Denver, Gay surveyed the competition when he got to Detroit and figured he wouldn't be a tight end for long.

"I guess I was a blocker, somebody to take up space," Gay said. "They had David Hill (a Pro Bowl tight end who could block and catch). As the season went on in 1978, on the scout teams they were telling me, 'You're not a tight end.'"

He got a further boost from Floyd Reese, the legendary defensive line coach.

"Floyd said, 'You're never going to be a tight end,'" Gay recalled.

Gay played all 16 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams, without a start or a reception.

He was on the other side of the ball in 1979. He traded the No. 83 he wore as a rookie tight end to 79, a defensive lineman's number. He also began adding bulk to his frame, going from a 228-pound tight end to a top weight of 265 to play defensive line.

Gay felt at home immediately.

"I was just too aggressive to be an offensive player, even in college," Gay said.

Gay's coaches at Southern Cal – first John McKay, then John Robinson – must have seen some value in how Gay played tight end. In three seasons as a starter, from 1975-77, he blocked for some of the greatest runners in college history – Charles White, Ricky Bell and Marcus Allen.

"The thing about it was, it was so much fun to be with all of them," Gay said. "The competition of it -- I thought practice was harder than the game, with all the work we did during the week.

"We were always being challenged."

The aggressiveness he talked about in college was apparent when he got to Detroit. He used his size on special teams to be a force on the coverage units.

It was a slow, steady conversion to defense. He was a part-time starter on defense in 1979, with two starts in 15 games.

"I was more of the utility man," Gay said. "When somebody got tired or went down, I went in behind him."

He escalated to 16 games and nine starts in 1980, and to a full-time starter at left defensive end in 1981.

"I took it as a chance to perform and play instead of standing on the sideline hoping to get in," he said. "It was time to go to work."

Although they came from different parts of the country, there was a strong bond among the players who made up the Silver Rush. After being made the starter at left end, Gay struggled when he was asked to move inside to tackle.

Four-time Pro Bowl tackle Doug English advised him on how to handle the switch.

"Doug said, 'Don't worry; things just happen a little faster,'" Gay said. "I took his word for it. I surprised myself. I actually did pretty well."

Wherever he was asked to line up, Gay earned playing time with production. He had five sacks in the 1982 season that was shortened to nine games by a players strike.

He had to handle another switch of greater magnitude, and more pressure, when he was moved to right end in 1983 after Bubba Baker had been traded.

Baker was one of the NFL's brightest stars as a pass rusher and immensely popular with Lions fans.

Gay remembered a line written about the switch by yours truly for The Detroit News.

"You wrote that I had big shoes to fill," Gay said. "I told you that I don't wear that size. I really did welcome it. I missed the person who played it."

Gay answered the critics and analysts with his performance in the opening game at Tampa Bay. He had a career-high five sacks in an 11-0 win. The Lions' offense didn't score. The Lions got their points on three field goals by Eddie Murray and a safety by English for tackling the quarterback in the end zone.

Gay remembers having pregame nerves – and how he calmed them down by getting a sack early in the second quarter.

"I didn't feel the pressure anymore," Gay said. "Everything was focused on, 'What am I supposed to accomplish today?' The thing was, I needed to get sacks. Once the game started, everything was gone.

"After the first sack, I didn't care about anything anymore. I went out to make plays."

It was the launch of a career season for Gay. He went on to have a career-high 13.5 sacks and make the Pro Bowl.

It was a highlight for Gay, who backed up his 1983 season with 10 sacks in 1984. He was a Lion through 1987. He retired after the 1988 season after playing briefly for the Vikings.

Gay has continued to live in Metro Detroit. He embraced the city, with its mix of problems and possibilities, from the time he landed here on a flight from Denver in 1978.

He's proud to be remembered as a part of the Silver Rush.

"The one thing I do like about it is, all the Detroit Lions that they've had after us, they still remember us," Gay said. "I laugh with joy. You know how you see players after they leave the game? Some of them get that after they retire.

"When they say the Silver Rush was the best, that brings a lot of joy."

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