When William Gay walked into the Steelers' locker room on Monday morning, the newly signed cornerback heard a familiar voice call out to him and his already bright smile suddenly lit up the entire room when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau greeted him with a warm welcome home.
Because for Gay, that is what signing with the Steelers was all about. Coming home, returning to his football family, a family that that he remained close to even after he left for the Arizona Cardinals via free agency a little less than a year ago.
"It felt good. It's like coming back home," said Gay, standing at the door of the locker room he called home for the first five years of his NFL career. "It's like the feeling a guy in the military might have coming back home and seeing his wife or kids. That is how I feel coming back here and seeing everyone, seeing these black and gold walls and just seeing this place.
"Walking through the airport last night I was thinking, man I am back here in Pittsburgh. It's really happening. When I signed the papers I officially became a Pittsburgh Steeler again. It was a great feeling."
Gay was a free agent after the 2011 season, and with three young corners in the mix in Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, his future in Pittsburgh became uncertain and he did what he had to do, seeing what was out there and signing with the Cardinals. It wasn't an easy move for him because his heart was in Pittsburgh.
"It was a very tough decision," said Gay, who was able to reunite with his former secondary coach Ray Horton, who was the Cardinals defensive coordinator at the time. "I tried to make the best decision for me and my family and it worked out. It was great for a year."
Gay had signed a two-year contract with Arizona and expected to be there for another season, but with a new Cardinals' coaching staff changes came, and Gay was released last Friday. It didn't take long for his phone to ring, quickly hearing from former teammate and close friend Ike Taylor.
"When he heard the news about me getting released by Arizona he called me and was like, 'Hey, what do you need me to do?'" said Gay. "He thinks he's my agent so he ended up calling (general manager) Kevin Colbert himself. He was like, 'Hey man, you need to get Will Gay back.'"
Don't think for a minute that wasn't what Gay was hoping for. When he left for Arizona last year he sat down with Colbert, Coach Mike Tomlin and President Art Rooney II, thanked them for what they did for him and told them he would still love to play for the Steelers. He couldn't have imagined it would happen so fast.
"I was on the way to Charlotte last week when the news came out about me being released," said Gay. "As soon as I landed my agent called and said Pittsburgh wants you back. He said there were a couple of other teams too. I told him I was done going to another team, if the Steelers have something on the table, I will take it.
"When I told my grandmother and my family I was coming back, they were excited. They were mad I ever left. They still don't understand it. I was happy they were excited for me."
His role on the team is something that likely will play out over time this offseason, and could be determined by what happens with Lewis, who is about to be an unrestricted free agent.
"For me personally, I just want to win," said Gay, who signed a three-year deal. "I just want to come back and win. I love the feeling of winning. We went 5-11 last year in Arizona so I just want to win. Whatever needs to be done, that is what I am going to do. I want to compete. They haven't said anything, but I want to compete to get on the field whether it's as the nickel or a starter, I am going to just do that. But I want to win."
Gay, who will wear his familiar No. 22 and even has a home in Pittsburgh having never sold his condo because of his love for the city, is happy to not have to deal with the rigors of free agency again. He described the experience as being like a meat market, where values rise and fall and everyone is looking for the best deal.
"If your value is not high they are going to wait until they can get you at the lowest price, wait until you go on sale," said Gay. "That is how it is. People don't understand that part. You see what they put out, all of these big contracts. Every free agent doesn't get that. You have to know it could go well or not. You don't want to be stuck out there. I didn't want to be in that situation. I am happy to have it out of the way before free agency starts."
Gay potentially could have had other options after he was released, possibly a scenario where he could step in and be a starter without question. But Pittsburgh is home, and he bleeds black and gold. It's that same black and gold blood that had him following the Steelers closely last year, watching every game he was able to and feeling the ups and downs as if he were still playing for the team.
"I felt like I had two records last year," said Gay. "As soon as I played our game, I would go home and catch some of the night games the Steelers were playing. If I lost a game with Arizona, and then the Steelers lost that same week, I felt like I lost two games in one day. I followed them a lot.
"Just because I left, doesn't mean I left it all behind. I have best friends on the team. A lot of guys that came through here are special. You are always going to watch your family. Regardless of where you go you are still going to watch the games."
He then stopped for a minute, put his hand on the wall painted with black and gold stripes and smiled again.
"I missed these walls," said Gay. "I really did. I am happy to be home."