The Pittsburgh Steelers played through shock this past week as that worked to process their grief following the sudden passing of their wide receivers coach, Darryl Drake. Drake, 62, passed away suddenly on Sunday morning, which in practical terms had the effect of the team cutting their final week of training camp short.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin addressed reporters on Tuesday as they returned to practice for the first time. When he was asked if being able to get back on the football field helped to provide the group with a sense of normalcy, he said, “I don’t know that it does”.
However, he seemed to feel a bit different when it came to actually playing a game, specifically the Steelers’ second preseason game, a win over the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s just been a very difficult week. If anything, the game is probably a break from that. You get lost in the things that you need to do. Everything surrounding it, obviously, was” difficult, he said.
Many of the wide receivers that Drake coached spoke about his impact following the game, including the two that he had a hand in drafting during his year and a half with the team, second-year James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson. Both said that they felt he was still there with them in some way.
Prior to the game, Tomlin also talked to Bob Labriola for the team’s website about a diversity of topics, the first and foremost being the complications surrounding the preparation of beginning an NFL work week that begins with an untimely death.
“I thought the first thing that they needed, and we all needed, was time to digest what transpired in some way, to digest it in individual ways”, he said, and to that end, he canceled Sunday’s practice and shifted their off day from Tuesday to Monday to give them those two days to sort through their emotions.
“I think that was the first reaction in regards to the guys”, he said, referring to the ability “to provide the space and the time so they could grieve in whatever ways that they grieve, but also time to mobilize a plan to support them in the professional ways in which they need to be supported”.
Drake’s funeral was on Saturday, the same day as the game, which was delayed for nearly an hour due to rain. There was a moment of silence beforehand in his honor, and a moment of prayer for a man whom Tomlin said his coaching was a platform for his ministry.
Theirs is rarely anything simple about the process of sifting through grief, as those who have experienced it likely understand. Football and everything it entails will alternately be a salve and a trigger for players and coaches alike in dealing with Drake’s loss. The only way to get past it is through it.