Alejandro Villanueva: Darryl Drake wouldn’t want Steelers to ‘dwell’ on his passing
As the only player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster to serve in the military, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has experienced tragic loss, watching young boys in his platoon die while fighting overseas.
An Army Ranger who was deployed three times to Afghanistan, Villanueva was awarded a Bronze Star, among other commendations, for his service.
Villanueva is equipped with handling death perhaps more than any other player on the roster. Still, the unexpected loss of 62-year-old wide receivers coach Darryl Drake on Sunday brought back unpleasant memories.
While many Steelers players, including most wide receivers, were still too emotional to talk about Drake’s passing Wednesday morning, Villanueva relied on his military experience and how it helped him process Drake’s death.
“You can’t compare the two,” Villanueva said. “In the Army, you prepare for these things to happen. You expect these things to happen. … The kids that died in battle are usually 18-19 years old, and that’s tougher to swallow. You look at their kids that they’ll never be able to meet. It’s part of the culture.
“You deal with death. Once you get over the deployments, once you can put it in the rear-view mirror, you can learn some very valuable lessons about death. It makes you appreciate life. Death is a part of life. You cannot have life without death. It’s something that individually everyone has to deal with at some point because it does come to all of us.”
For the Steelers, they had to deal with death in the middle of training camp, a time of the preseason when the daily routine rarely changes.
Villanueva commended the way coach Mike Tomlin reacted decisively by giving the players back-to-back days off so they could deal with their grief. Tomlin also cut practice short Tuesday, rather than move it indoors, when inclement weather hit Saint Vincent.
“He said to seek light. Don’t be closed off with it,” wide receiver Eli Rogers said. “If you don’t deal with death very well, don’t be closed off with it.”
The return to normalcy began Wednesday with a spirited two-hour practice in pads.
“Guys are coming back together,” rookie running back Benny Snell said. “Right now, I see it as this is just going to make us better. Especially with the quarterbacks and the receiver group, we are brothers. We are brothers around here, so we got each other’s back when we’re down. And it’s only up from here. For Drake.”
The routine will continue Thursday with the final practice at Saint Vincent. The next step will be playing the preseason game Saturday against Kansas City at Heinz Field.
“I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good job of understanding what Coach Drake would want from all of us at this moment,” Villanueva said. “He’s not going to want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a big sense of humor. For us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play, that we have to get focused, that playmakers have to make plays.
“It’s a great opportunity to honor his life and his legacy by making those plays, by staying focused and by playing our best football.”
Although Drake was with the Steelers for just one season, Villanueva credited him with keeping the young receivers focused in the final week when All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown walked out on the team and was deactivated for the finale against Cincinnati.
“He had a pretty important role with some of the distractions in the locker room,” Villanueva said. “He spoke of the values of the team and unity and helping each other out. His voice was heard, his values. He definitely was one who helped us get through the tough end of the season last year.”
Villanueva said Drake became an even more vocal and influential member of the coaching staff when players returned for workouts in the spring.
“He just walked in, he didn’t have to do any introductions, he started opening up his mind, being a very outspoken leader about the things he thought needed to be said,” Villanueva said. “People respected that, people responded to that.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .