Mike Tomlin ‘devastated’ by death of Steelers WR coach Darryl Drake | TribLIVE.com
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Joe Rutter

With a heavy heart and speaking at times while his a voice crackled with emotion, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin tried his best Tuesday to articulate what Darryl Drake meant to players, coaches and himself.

Drake, the team’s wide receivers coach, died early Sunday morning in the college dorms, leaving a void on Tomlin’s staff and an incalculable loss in the Steelers family. Drake was 62

“We’re all devastated,” Tomlin said. “I really can’t think of any other appropriate words.”

An autopsy determined nothing “suspicious” about Drake’s death, but a formal cause of death won’t be announced by the Westmoreland County Coroner until toxicology test results are known in a few weeks.

Drake, a college and NFL assistant for 36 years, is survived by his wife Sheila, their three daughters and two grandchildren.

“Professionally, the loss is significant. Personally it’s even bigger,” Tomlin said. “Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with coach Drake all feel that way. We realize we don’t have a lot of answers.”

The Steelers canceled practice Sunday, and Tomlin switched an off day to Monday so his team could have the proper amount of time to grieve the death of Drake, who was entering his second year with the organization.

It was eerily quiet Tuesday on the field and in the stands when the Steelers returned to work at Chuck Noll Field. The weather, so nice and sunny for the first two weeks of camp, illustrated the mood as a slow drizzle turned into a steady rain and an eventual downpour. Practice was halted after about 90 minutes.

Prior to position drills, about two dozen offensive players, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, kneeled in prayer. When the players broke the huddle, Ryan Switzer had tears in his eyes, prompting fellow receiver James Washington to wrap his arm around his teammate’s shoulder for comfort.

Tomlin said “many” players remained at Saint Vincent in the wake of Drake’s death, and grief counselors were brought in to assist players and staffers deal with the unexpected loss of the popular assistant.

“It’s been said that counseling is not for the weak but the wise,” Tomlin said, “so we seek people who have expertise and can help in such circumstances.”

Tomlin did not name a replacement for Drake or how the coaching duties would be handled until a successor emerges.

“We are in the process of developing a plan there,” he said.

On Tuesday, the receivers were led by Blaine Stewart, a coaching assistant, and Ray Sherman, a former Steelers offensive coordinator who spent time around the team earlier in camp. Sherman, 67, was Bill Cowher’s play-caller in 1998. He made four NFL stops as a wide receiver coach since 2002, but he hasn’t worked in the league for the past three seasons.

Tomlin admitted it would be difficult for the Steelers to focus on football so soon after Drake’s passing. He declined to discuss any organizational plans for a memorial service but said Drake will be honored in some way by the team. The Steelers play their next game preseason Saturday night when the Kansas City Chiefs visit Heinz Field.

“We have professional obligations,” he said. “We intend to march.”

Although Tomlin didn’t hire Drake until after Richard Mann retired after the 2017 season, his association with Drake spanned more than two decades.

Drake was an established collegiate position coach in 1997 when Tomlin was in the infancy of his career coaching wide receivers at Arkansas State.

“I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him,” Tomlin said, managing a smile. “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 to lot of young guys in our profession. That’s why we talk about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape, things of that nature. We developed a rapport, and our relationship grew from there.”

Drake spent the past 15 years of his coaching career in the NFL, working with the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals before joining the Steelers.

“Coaching was coach Drake’s platform for ministry,” Tomlin said. “Coaching was his vocation. He was a father, mentor, brother, adviser.”

Away from the field, Tomlin called Drake a “strong Christian brother.”

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