The best of times, the worst of times, might be associated with Charles Dickens, but it's also a description of the life of Patriots rookie cornerback Randall Gay.
The best of times might have been Wednesday night when Gay arrived at Baton Rouge (La.) Metropolitan Airport, after the Patriots dispersed for some off time during their bye week. That's when Gay knew his life, which has known tragedy and hardship, had turned for the better.
The native of Brusly, La., laid eyes on his 8-month-old son, Randall III, in a scene filled with emotion. Gay was overwhelmed because Randall III was 3 months old when Gay last saw him. The child has since lived with Gay's fiancee, a native of Trinidad. The couple met while students at Louisiana State.
Gay said goodbye to his son when he left for training camp in July, in the hopes of landing a job that would help support his family.
"He just stared at me for about two minutes," said Gay of the reunion with his son. "You could tell he was thinking, `I don't quite recognize you,' but I think he knew I was somebody important in his life. It was unbelievable to see them again. It's some of the things that people don't realize you go through as an NFL player. It's been so hard. I think about him all the time, but he's at an age where when you call on the phone you can't really talk to him. You can hear him on the other end of the line, you see pictures, but you wonder what's he doing and how he's growing. He's so different. He's so active now."
Gay suspects it will be even more difficult to leave this time when he returns to Boston tomorrow to begin preparations for the Patriots' Jan. 16 playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
"This was the first time we've really had a chance to bond, and he cried when I left for breakfast this morning, so I think he's getting attached to me, which makes me feel good, but I know it's going to be difficult the next time we're apart," he said.
Gay, a 5-foot-11-inch, 186-pounder, has defied the odds this season, surviving a competition with veterans Otis Smith and Terrell Buckley in minicamp and training camp, and for many weeks either starting or seeing considerable action in the absence of starting cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Ty Law, who are both out for the season, Law being placed on injured reserve yesterday after missing most of the season with a broken left foot.
From undrafted free agent to key component in the Patriots' secondary, the man they call "Blue" is emerging as a solid player after a difficult time at LSU.
"College was pretty rough," Gay said.
That was understating it. A star running back and student at Brusly High School, Gay was recruited by several southern schools. LSU, however, was not initially interested, though the Tigers got involved late in the recruiting process.
Gay recalls going on a recruiting trip to the University of Alabama with his parents and coming close to signing with the Crimson Tide. A late-night talk with his mother, followed by a well-timed phone call from his high school coach, changed his mind.
"My parents were in one room and I was in another, and it really hit me that I didn't want to do this," Gay said. "I was very close to my mother [Linda] and I told her, `I really don't want to leave home.' She said she didn't want me to leave either. At that point I was considering going to a smaller school like Southern [University] in Baton Rouge, but I was probably going to sign on at Alabama. A few minutes later, my high school coach [Brady James] calls me and tells me that LSU wants to offer me a scholarship."
The Tigers had fired coach Gerry DiNardo and hired Nick Saban. It was a program in flux, but Saban was aware of Gay's ability.
"Once I got into the program, I realized there's a lot of running backs here," Gay said. "We had LaBrandon Toefield [Jacksonville] and Domanick Davis [Houston], both of whom are in the NFL now. Coach talked to me about maybe having to change positions to defensive back. I had gained a lot of weight so I could play running back in college. I was up to about 196 pounds. I thought about it and agreed to do it, but when I first started playing corner, it was quite a struggle. It wasn't pretty at all."
In practice Gay would routinely get picked apart by Tigers quarterback Rohan Davey, a current Patriots teammate, who wasn't shy about going to deep to another future NFL player, Josh Reed, at Gay's expense.
"They used to just kill me at practice," Gay said. "I couldn't cover anybody. Oh man, was it bad. I had gained so much weight trying to play running back at that level, that I was trying to lose some weight so I could maintain my speed. That took a while to happen, but finally I started to catch on and started liking the position the more I played it and the more experience I got."
But that wasn't as difficult as what was to come.
Gay recalls it was early November of his freshman year when his life was turned upside down. Gay worked part-time at Hubbins Supermarket in Baton Rouge, where his mother was a cashier. They had lunch together every Friday before Randall either left for a road game or had team meetings before a home game on Saturday.
But on this particular Friday, Gay couldn't make lunch with his mother. Late that night, one of Gay's coaches knocked on his hotel room door and told him his mother had been involved in an auto accident. Her car was found in a ditch.
"At the time I didn't know . . . when I got to the hospital they told me she was dead," he said. "She had some kind of blood clot that caused a heart attack while she was driving."
Linda Gay was 40, with no signs of heart problems, according to her son.
"She wasn't sick," he said. "She had gone to the doctor's a few days before and she was anemic, but this wasn't anything we expected or had planned for. It was devastating to our family and to my dad."
Following his mother's death, Gay couldn't muster an appetite and began losing weight at an alarming rate. He shed 30 pounds. He sought counseling at school. He didn't want to play football anymore.
"I thought I was going to quit," said Gay. "I had a lot of people helping me trying to get me back. I think it eventually sunk in that my mom would have wanted me to keep playing and that she would be proud of me. I think being able to dedicate my football career to her made all the difference for me."
Not long before he returned to the field -- on Christmas -- with the team preparing for the Peach Bowl, Gay's grandfather, Wilbert, died after a long battle with cancer, which forced Gay to return home and miss his first bowl game.
Through all of this, Gay's father, who worked the late shift at a local factory, grew closer to his son. While his schedule didn't mesh well with his son's when he was growing up -- though Gay says his father always made time to watch him play -- Gay's father has become a major sounding board for him in the years after his mother's death.
Gay played in every game as a sophomore, but when his junior year came along, the injury bug hit.
"I played most of my junior year with a messed-up right shoulder," he said. "I went to jam a receiver and I heard something pop in there. I couldn't lift it above my head most of the time. Coach Saban was going through a tough time with our secondary and the last thing he needed was having me go down. So I stuck it out. It hurt my production, but I'm glad I kept playing. The team needed me."
Gay had offseason surgery and needed weeks of rehabilitation. He was healthy enough to start the first game of his senior season, but bad luck struck again, as he broke his left arm in the opener.
"It was so frustrating," Gay said. "I recover from one thing and then I hurt the other arm. I think by the fifth game Coach Saban tried to work me back in at corner, but I was in so much pain I wasn't able to stick it out. It didn't stop hurting until two games left in the season. At that point we were ranked third in the country and the second-best defense in the country. I was being used as a third corner. Coach Saban wanted to get me back in as a starter and I just said, `It's OK. Let's not change anything,' because I didn't want to disrupt anything. It turned out to work out fine because I was used a lot as the nickel corner. I played almost as much as if I was starting."
Despite being part of a team that went on to share the national championship last year with Southern Cal, the damage to Gay's draft status had been done by his injuries. He said he ran between 4.27 and 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, with a 40-inch vertical leap, for scouts. That at least got him on some teams' radar screens.
Draft day and Randall III arrived at the same time. Talk about the best and worst of times. Gay was not selected in the draft, but his first child was born.
More determined than ever to overcome obstacles and now needing to support his son, Gay chose the Patriots over several teams that tried to sign him.
"The Patriots had drafted Marquise [Hill], Rohan, Jarvis Green, Eric Alexander, Kevin [Faulk] were all there," he said of New England's former LSU players. "It just seemed like the place to go, where the transition wouldn't be as tough as someplace else."
Gay admits it was daunting to see former first-round picks Law, Poole, Buckley, and Jeff Burris, all corners, under contract, with Smith, another veteran, around as well. But Burris soon retired, Buckley and Smith were cut, and the Patriots liked what they saw out of Gay.
"A lot of people we had there had played a lot of games in the NFL," said Gay. "But I remember at our first position meeting I started going over things and I realized these were the same things I did in college. So much of the terminology was the same because of the relationship between Coach [Bill] Belichick and Coach Saban, that I think that gave me some confidence. I was even explaining stuff to some of them other guys because I already knew it."
When Law and Poole went down with injuries, Gay became a more important part of the defense. He has started at corner and played some safety. He's basically done what he did at LSU, but he's remained healthy as well.
Gay has been through a lot the past few years, but he's turned the corner on a new life -- a life that often brings him back to his mother.
"I promised her I would graduate, and I didn't leave LSU until I did," he said. "I was always a good student. I had a 3.8 [grade-point average] in high school and over 3.0 in college [as a marketing major]. I never smoked or drank because my mother never did. And I never will. I know how fortunate I am. I love playing football. I take this very seriously. I'm looking forward to the playoffs because I've never experienced it. I've played more than I've ever played this season, but to go 14-2 as a rookie and make the playoffs, I never would have imagined that."