The serene setting at Saint Vincent suddenly felt like an eerie silence — save the occasional caws of crows flying among the trees — when the church bells rang at Saint Vincent Basilica to signal Sunday Mass was soon to start.
A sudden pall was cast over the site of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, as word spread the stunning news Darryl Drake had died. The Steelers wide receivers coach was 62.
The Steelers canceled their 12th practice of training camp, turning away fans in vehicles parked along Brouwers Road as the campus was closed to fans.
This was only 36 hours after the Steelers won their preseason opener over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field. Now, the flag at the corner of Chuck Noll Field had been lowered to half-staff.
Suddenly, football was an afterthought.
Drake was in only his second season with the Steelers but long ago had earned a reputation throughout the NFL as one of the best at his craft. To read the condolences from NFL players and coaches on social media, there was a theme: For as good of a coach as he was, Darryl Drake was an even better man.
A man we were just getting to know, one now gone far too soon. Survived by his wife, Sheila, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian and two grandchildren, Drake was remembered by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as “an amazing husband, father and grandfather” and a close friend who had “a tremendous impact” on his coaching career and who “loved the game of football and every player he coached.”
No wonder Tomlin’s statement that “it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now” was echoed by Steelers president Art Rooney II saying what everyone was thinking: “We are at a loss for words.”
Drake never seemed to be at a loss for words when talking football. His candor was captivating, especially when he spoke about coaching football. Never was that more evident than during the NFL Draft this past April, when he turned questions about third-round pick Diontae Johnson of Toledo into a dissertation on discovering and developing talent.
“To me, it doesn’t matter where you play,” said Drake, who played and coached at Western Kentucky before it became an FBS program. “I played the game at a small school because back when I came out, there weren’t very many minorities who were going to major college schools. But I could play. It didn’t matter where I came from or that this guy is at Toledo.”
That’s not just a philosophy but a testament to Drake’s career. After playing wide receiver at Western Kentucky and a season in the CFL, the Louisville native coached at his alma mater from 1983-92 before going to Georgia, where he would coach future Steelers receivers Andre Hastings and Hines Ward.
In the NFL, Drake coached established superstars such as Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona and Antonio Brown with the Steelers. But Drake preferred talking about his pet projects, and had a keen eye for finding players at lesser-known programs.
“One thing I try to do every draft is I look at every receiver that’s coming out,” Drake said. “There might be 200 of them. I try to look at them, and if a guy’s got any kind of statistics or anything that’s intriguing, I have a tendency to look at him.”
With the Chicago Bears, he coached Pro Bowl receivers Johnny Knox, a fifth-round pick from Abilene Christian, and Brandon Marshall, a fourth-rounder from UCF. With the Arizona Cardinals, he helped develop John Brown, a third-round pick from Pittsburg State, into a 1,000-yard receiver.
In Drake’s first season coaching the Steelers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster became the sixth duo in NFL history to have 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
“He’s going to get in your face, and he’s going to let you know that he needs more out of you, that he needs detail and we are here to embrace it,” former Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said of Drake last summer.
The Steelers were looking for Drake to lead a young corps of receivers this season. Drake was an imposing figure, a coach who was as quick to crack a joke as he was the whip.
His sense of humor could be sharp or subtle. When asked about Donte Moncrief, Drake said he had patience — but not a lot — for the free agent to grow into the role of the No. 2 receiver. When the Steelers signed Johnny Holton, Drake set a trap.
“Johnny’s got speed,” Drake said. “That’s the thing that caught our eye about him, his ability to run, because everybody can’t. It’s only me and him out here that can run like that.
“I know y’all don’t believe that.”
Drake’s death left an overwhelming sense of disbelief for the Steelers and the rest of the NFL on Sunday, leaving Saint Vincent in a stunned silence amid a state of shock.