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Willie Gay Jr. is happy with his growth — both on and off the field

The third-year linebacker has come a long way through his well-documented mental health struggles.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Now in his third season, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. has become one of the team’s core defensive players. Gay spoke with reporters following Friday’s practice, expressing satisfaction with the progress he is seeing in his play.

“I feel like it’s been pretty good,” Gay said his season. “If I look at myself personally, I feel like I’m getting better each and every week. Of course, there’s things I can fix here and there. Of course, there’s going to be mistakes that I make. But [the] all-around game, I feel like it’s getting better. I’m back in that rhythm. It’s Week 14 now. We’re rolling.”

Gay could be forgiven if the late stage of the season snuck up on him. The talented defender was suspended for four games starting in Week 3. He has started each game since returning for the Chiefs’ Week 7 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

When Gay speaks, he is rarely able to focus solely on football. The Mississippi State product admitted to struggling with mental health during the 2021 season. He has since been very open about his journey and taking care of himself.

Gay provided an encouraging update on Friday.

“I’ve came far,” he declared. “I used to hate coming to work some days last year. But now, honestly, the highlight of my day is getting up at 6:15 in the morning and getting ready to come to work. I really love it now. It definitely plays a role and [makes] a difference in the way you perform on the field — and in the outside world.”

His head coach has noticed the improvement.

“I think Willie has grown,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said in his Friday remarks. “He’s a father now, and that was an important step. He continues to grow. He’s a fun kid to be around — loves to play. I’m proud him for how he’s handled himself here.”

While football is the ultimate team sport, Gay has learned the importance of seeing that his own needs are met.

“Just focusing on myself and keeping the distractions out,” he said how he has coped with dark times. “Whether it’s the outside world, the media, whatever it is. Just being in my own world sometimes. That’s what it takes — and that’s what I did.”

Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Although Gay has become indispensable on the field, the middle of the defense as a whole had a game to forget in last Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Echoing sentiments throughout the week by players and coaches, he does not put any extra importance on the defeat, knowing championships are not won in December.

“We know there’s a lot of games left to play,” he countered. “That game — of course, it hurt us. But we’ve got a bigger goal in mind. We’ve got to keep rolling and try to win out — and see what we get after that.”

Moving on to Denver does not, however, erase lessons learned in the loss.

“Wherever we were wrong at in that game, [we] just try to correct it on the practice field,” Gay claimed. “Whether it is matching routes on the back [or] middle of the field. Just check downs, try to get to the ball fast, and get them on the ground. Just matching routes faster or looking over routes. Anything to stop the big plays.”

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