'He called us his sons'

The tears, they were real.

The emotion, it was raw and straight from the heart.

Because as Ryan Switzer spoke on Thursday, he spoke about a man he loved. A man all the Steelers’ receivers loved. A man the team loved, the coaches loved, and everyone in the organization loved.

When Darryl Drake passed away on Sunday, it took a lot out of everyone in the organization. But in the receivers’ room, a group of young players who have been molded by Drake’s caring touch, it took even more out of them.

Switzer took a picture of the receivers’ group at the start of camp with Drake, one that he will treasure forever. It’s the perfect snapshot of how close a group they are, how much love there is among everyone in the group.

“Coach Drake always called us his sons,” said Switzer, unable to hold back the emotion, and understandably so. “He didn’t have any boys. He always called us his sons. We took that at the beginning of camp. He just called us his sons.”

When Switzer was traded to the Steelers in the 2018 preseason, the second time he was traded since the end of the 2017 season, his expectations were low. He had seen firsthand how cold and calculating the NFL can be. And he understandably expected more of the same.

Until he met Darryl Drake.

Drake was straightforward. What he told you, he meant. It wasn’t a line to make you feel good. He didn’t let you start your day without a good morning if you saw him in the hallway. And he didn’t let the receivers start their meetings without faith.

He was caring. He was compassionate. He was kind. He was loving. And he was a man of faith that you could trust in and believe.

Switzer immediately felt that.

“It's not so much things he said. For some reason I just trusted him,” said Switzer. “I have had a lot of turnover in my short career. I have had a lot of empty and broken promises. I didn’t feel that with Drake. Never did. He was a trustworthy person and so welcoming and warm. I felt that immediately when I got here.”

And that is what is so revealing. That immediate trust tells you the man Drake was. Remember, he only spent one full season coaching the receivers. Yet he left the impact of someone the players have known for their entire lives.

“Coach Drake beyond a shadow of a doubt was that special person,” said Switzer. “I am sure you guys have seen if by the outpouring of love, support and kind words he has gotten from everyone he has come in contact with. I certainly didn’t quite understand the amount of people he reached and touched until I saw it. It didn’t surprise me. I knew the man for a little over a year and he taught me more in that time and meant more to me in that time than some people I have known my entire life. You certainly do have to be a special person and he was.”

His impact on the receivers on the field, that was evident last year. His impact off the field, it was beyond compare.

“Like I said the other day, it’s immeasurable,” said Switzer. “I can’t really say much more about the relationship we had. He knows how much he meant to me.

“I am a better man, a better husband, a better son, a better friend, a better teammate because of Coach Drake. Because of the things he taught me. I promise you they won’t go in vain. I will take things he instilled in me, the things he shared with me because of his experiences, the rest of my life. I think that is the best gift he could have ever given me and…”

Switzer’s voice shook as he struggled to finish the sentence. As he put his emotions on his sleeve in front of cameras. As he poured his heart out. And as he prepared to do what Coach Drake would want, get ready for another day on the practice field, something that has been more of a struggle than many imagined.

“It’s hard man,” said Switzer, trying his best to keep it together while everyone understood how difficult it was for him. “Football has been an outlet for me and everyone else who plays it because it’s an escape from the real world. You get out there and all your problems are gone. Now we get out there and…and he is not there. It’s hard because…he was everywhere.

“It’s hard to get back to the game you love because he is not out there telling you what to do. He is not out there yelling. It’s hard. It’s part of our profession, it’s something we have to do. It’s something Coach Drake would want us to do. Quite frankly he would be pissed at me right now for taking it as hard as we are, but it is hard.”

Switzer, who said it’s the first time he has had to deal with the death of someone close to him, said the receivers are leaning on each other for support now and he can see everyone coming together. 

“I am figuring out it does bring people together,” said Switzer. “I think it’s going to be a part of the Steelers story for 2019, 2020, as long as we keep Drake’s legacy alive, it will be a part of our story. You can’t get through it alone. It’s something as a receiver room we have been preaching. We are trying to stay together. If each one of us can just be a little bit strong then collectively as a group, we can be stronger together.”

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