Kevin Gorman: The Steelers intend to march on but, first, they prayed |
Kevin Gorman, Columnist

Kevin Gorman: The Steelers intend to march on but, first, they prayed

Kevin Gorman
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver, running backs and quarterback kneel and pray before practice Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 at Saint Vincent College.

The raindrops fell just as Pittsburgh Steelers players in white jerseys took a knee at Chuck Noll Field, sharing a prayer before position drills in their first practice without Darryl Drake.

The wide receivers, the position Drake was in charge of coaching for the Steelers, were first to kneel. The running backs and quarterbacks ran over to join them — the players taking off their helmets, the coaches their baseball caps out of respect.

As they bowed their heads in prayer, the sounds of Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College surrounded their huddle: the buzz of the fans, a hut! from a nearby blocking drill, a security staffer announcing to spectators, “No umbrellas.”

James Conner kept his helmet on. James Washington kept his eyes closed. Johnny Holton draped his arm around Diontae Johnson, who knelt next to Ray Sherman, who placed his left hand on Johnson’s knee.

After a minute, as the players rose and ran to their respective drills, Washington put his arm around Ryan Switzer as he choked back tears.

Somehow, the Steelers were supposed to go back to football.

As the raindrops turned into a downpour and the grass became slippery, they practiced for the first time without Drake. Sherman, a longtime NFL assistant who spent a season as the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, ran the receiver drills. Soon, the threat of lightning interrupted practice. It seemed oddly appropriate that the session ended early.

This training camp had been marked by sunshine and high temperatures. But Tuesday, there were overcast skies and a cool breeze at Saint Vincent, an ominous sign after the death of Drake. He was revered, called an even better man than a coach.

That was evident four hours earlier, as Mike Tomlin attempted to keep a stiff upper lip while speaking about the sudden loss.

The Steelers coach folded his arms in front of him, his hands tightly gripping his elbows. He kept his eyes up and scanned the room, avoiding eye contact to keep his composure while talking about the death of Drake, who was not only a coaching colleague but served as something more meaningful to his boss.

“Obviously,” Tomlin said, “we’re all devastated by that.”

Steelers players shared moving tributes to Drake on Sunday night on social media, from JuJu Smith-Schuster calling him “honestly my favorite coach I’ve had in this game” to Switzer saying “what he meant to me was immeasurable.”

Perhaps the most powerful was the 10-second video clip of Drake starting a position meeting with a prayer, shared by former Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. So it was only appropriate the Steelers started practice the same way.

“Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry,” Tomlin said. “He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an adviser — like we all are in a lot of ways — to the men that he worked with not only now but over the course of his career, which spanned decades.”

Tomlin was among the many whom Drake mentored. They were separated by 15 years but shared a passion for coaching football, family and a Christian brotherhood that begat a Bible study.

They met in 1997, when Drake was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Baylor and Tomlin was in his first season as wide receivers coach at Arkansas State. Drake already had a reputation as one of the best wide receivers coaches in college football, one he would later carry to the NFL.

“I was politely aggressive,” Tomlin said, pausing to laugh, “in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice — that’s how he described it — in terms of being my friend. I was too persistent.

“He extended courtesies to me like he does a lot of young guys in the profession. And that’s why we talk about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport, and our relationship grew from there.”

So it was a sign of both Tomlin’s deep respect for Drake and of his strong leadership of the Steelers that he put on a brave face publicly to talk about the devastating loss. Drake’s death didn’t just interrupt the training camp routine on this bucolic campus. It shook the Steelers and sent shockwaves across the league.

Training camp shut down for two days, with some players returning to their Pittsburgh homes while others remained in their dorms at Rooney Hall. The Steelers brought in grief counselors and focused their attention on providing support for Drake’s wife, Sheila, three daughters and extended family.

By Tuesday, it was back to football practice.

Perhaps it’s a necessary diversion at a difficult time. Tomlin’s tone changed when breaking down the particulars of Friday’s preseason victory over Tampa Bay. Then he was asked if returning to football would help restore a sense of normalcy.

“I don’t know that it does,” Tomlin said, citing it as a professional obligation. “We intend to march.”

Before the Steelers marched, they took a knee and prayed, knowing that nothing about this camp would be the same.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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