TAMPA — When Matt Gay was growing up as a kid, he was often teased and bullied about his last name. He also has family members who have experienced the same thing. So his cause is to help stop bullying, especially among kids.
“Anti-bullying is huge to me,’’ Gay said, displaying his Cleats for a Cause. “I’ve had some nieces and nephews and family members close to me that were strongly affected by it. Especially with social media in this day and age. It’s everywhere. It’s so easy to hide behind a phone and say whatever you want. This is just really important to me because it hits home because I’ve had family members strongly affected by it. I think it’s pure coward-ism for those who do it and there’s no place for it in this world.
“I got bullied and teased all the time for my last name and things like that. Luckily I was stronger willed than they were and overcome it. There’s a lot of kids that get bullied in this world and have no way to stand up for themselves.’’
Of course, professional athletes are often the target of mean tweets or hate mail and Gay says he has had his share already as a rookie in the NFL.
“It’s crazy. Some of the messages I receive, it’s almost like people forget you’re an actual human being,’’ Gay said. “That you’re sending this to another person. It’s easy when you’re sitting behind a phone and not face to face with someone and can say whatever you want. But you don’t know it’s affecting that person, it’s affecting the mom and those that are around them. Just being able to show a little faith in humanity and love everyone. We’re all struggling through life. There’s no reason to beat somebody down for no reason.’’
Here are some other My Cleats, My Cause stories
Tight end Cameron Brate — Special Olympics
Brate's mother was a special education teacher, which inspired Brate to work with Special Olympics when he was attending high school.
“It’s just something I’ve always enjoyed to do and it’s an organization in Tampa I like to work with,” Brate said as he showed off his clean white cleats with a red Special Olympics logo on the front.
Receiver Chris Godwin — Team Godwin Foundation
For some players, the My Cause, My Cleats programs allows them to highlight their fledgling foundations, and for Godwin, who founded the Team Godwin Foundation with his girlfriend, Mariah DelPercio, earlier this year to promote local animal adoption by providing financial assistance to our area shelter and rescue groups.
Godwin's cleats were custom made for feature the couple's two dogs, a Pomsky — part Pomerian, part Siberian husky — named Ghost and an American Staffordshire terrier named Ziggy, and also honors a friend's dog that was hit by a car.
Running back Ronald Jones — American Heart Association
Ronald Jones looked down at his red cleats and smiled.
"Red's my favorite color," he said.
Jones' father, Ronald Jones Sr., died of heart disease. His uncle is also suffering from it. So Jones' cleats have a large American Heart Association logo on them. His father's name is also across one of the cleats.
Offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa — National CMV Foundation
For the third straight year, Marpet will wear cleats to raise awareness for cytomegalovirus, or CMV and highlight the National CMV Foundation. Cappa will wear the same cleats for a second straigh year.
Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek and his wife, Kristen, and co-founded the National CMV Foundation to raise awareness about CMV and to honor of their daughter, Evelyn Grace, who passed away from CMV in 2014.
CMV is the most common viral infection that infants are born with in the United States, with more than 30,000 each year affected and more than 5,000 of those suffering from permanent disabilities. Congenital CMV is also the leading cause of non-genetic childhood hearing loss. Complications from congenital CMV results in up to 400 deaths yearly.
Linebacker Devin White — Animal hydration
On the eve he of signing his rookie contract with the Bucs, Devin White was mourning the death of his believed 5-year-old horse, Daisy Mae. The standardbred died unexpectedly near his home in Louisiana of heat exhaustion. So for the My Cleats, My Cause initiative, White chose Animal Dehydration Awareness.
On Wednesday, he smiled when he opened the box containing his blue cleats with a picture of Daisy Mae.
“They’re beautiful,’’ White said. “It’s a great pic. Got my number on the inside. It’s got a horseshoe right there. I miss my girl. So I’m going to have a really good game this week. I know it. I feel it.’’
“I’m probably going to run faster than I’ve ever ran, too.’’
Safety Jordan Whitehead — American Cancer Society and Celebral Palsy
Whitehead represented not one, but two causes on his green cleats. On his right shoe, he had the logo of the American Cancer Society, and organization he began representing a few months ago. Steelers running back James Conner's name is on the inside of the shoe. Conner, a close friend of Whitehead and former college teammate at Pitt, made an inspiring comeback from Hodgskin's Lymphoma.
The inside of Whitehead's left shoe has names of Madison and Michael Aikens, a pair of twin siblings who Whitehead befriended in high school who have cerebal palsy, which is recognized on the outside of that cleat. Whitehead first met them when he attended Central Valley High School outside Pittsburgh when they were in the same music class with Madison.
“Now, they’re my No. 1 fans, they’ve come to all the big games,” Whitehead said. “So it’s a shoutout to them.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.