As he talked, JuJu Smith-Schuster pulled up his sleeve and showed the media gathered around him in the Steelers locker room the two wristbands he was proudly wearing.
A gold one with black writing had the main message Coach Darryl Drake shared with the receivers.
‘Shut out the noise.’
The other, a black wristband with gold writing, was the last quote that Drake shared with the receivers group.
‘Never choose good when great is available.’
Smith-Schuster said he just got them made, and was about to share them with his fellow receivers. It was the latest in a way to honor Drake, a man who meant so much to the group. The team will wear a decal all season with black initials ‘DD’ in a gold circle. Donte Moncrief got hoodies for the receivers with Drakes ‘Shut out the noise’ message on them that they wore for the first time in pregame against the Chiefs last week.
“There are no words,” said Smith-Schuster when asked what Drake meant to him. “That man helped me more so in life off the field than on the field just because he was a great man in every category in life. When he first walked in the room, one of the first quotes he had was ‘Shut out the noise.’ We came into this year and that is what he said.
“He usually said a quote to us every day. This was the last quote he said, ‘Never choose good when great is available.’ That means don’t settle for less, don’t be satisfied with what you have now. When great is out there, go achieve it. He will always be in memory of not just the team, but in my heart and everybody he touched.”
Smith-Schuster knows the last thing Drake would want is for the receivers to not go out and reach for great right now. As hard as it can be at times, he would want them to keep moving forward. And someone who is helping with that is Ray Sherman. Sherman, who joined the college coaching ranks in 1974 and then moved to the NFL in 1988, was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998. Now retired, he came to camp this year to observe the offense, and has been working with the receivers, something that has helped during a tough time.
“A guy who has been here,” said Smith-Schuster. “He has coached everybody from Jerry Rice to young guys like us. It’s the best opportunity to have him step up and play that role for us. Also Blaine (Stewart) is doing a great job. It just takes all of us together. We are in this together.
“To go through this at a young age, 22 years old, there are no words that can explain what we are going through. For Ray, he was retired, for him to come out of his way to be here it means a lot not only to myself but to the receivers in the room. We don’t want to change that.”
Being back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex is something that Smith-Schuster said has been beneficial for all of the players, a good change of scenery at the right time. It gives them the chance to get a routine down, get back in the flow of things, especially this week as the team prepares to play the Tennessee Titans on Sunday night in Nashville. The team is going through a normal in-season week of practice and Sunday will be the first time all of the offensive starters will be on the field together in the preseason, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“Just seeing how our chemistry works, playing all together with the ones,” said Smith-Schuster. “We practice every day, we practice hard, to have No. 7 out there, our starting o-line, receivers, running backs and tight ends and see how we are and how we have progressed. I don’t know how much we are going to play, but the amount of time we get we are going to try and make it work.
“It gets the rhythm going, building that connection, that chemistry with everybody. We have veteran guys who have played here before, but guys like Moncrief, he is new to the system. Those are new guys who have to get used to how Ben plays his game, two minutes, no huddle.”
More from JuJu:
On being a leader in the receivers room:
“I am still myself. I will never change that. I have become more vocal in the receiver room. Usually you go off of age, which is fine, because I think everyone in my room is a leader. Everyone is vocal. Everyone can talk and speak up. But when you have the amount of years playing on this team, the amount of experience, I fall in that category. I can see myself being more vocal and more of a leader in that room.”
On having a strong camp so it can turn into a strong season:
“It was very important. Obviously all eyes are on me. The biggest question is how are the Steelers going to be without two great players we used to have? How is JuJu is going to do without AB (Antonio Brown)? For myself I am just focused on what I have going on with my teammates and what we have going on around here. It’s pretty cool because it’s unique and we have been closer than ever.”
On that closeness:
“You can just see. Because we are all in it for the same reason and that is to win.”
On how Moncrief is helping him:
“He has helped me a lot, more so out of football, just life itself. He is a guy who is 26, 27 years old who is a veteran. It is great to have that guy. To have someone like that in our room makes my job a lot easier.”
On what he worked on in the offseason to be ready for this year:
“Being able to catch deep balls down the field. Those go balls, those free balls that they send down the field where I have to go make those plays. That is what I focus on a lot, catching the ball over the shoulder and being able to be a threat on the outside.”