Training camp is supposed to be a test. It’s supposed to push players to their limits. It’s supposed to be miserable. It’s supposed to weed out the weak. But it never was meant to go so far as to require the services of professional grief counselors.
But that’s the kind of week it was for the Steelers. Their final week at Saint Vincent College this summer began with a death in the family, an event that had Mike Tomlin use the word “devastated” to describe its effect.
Exactly one week ago today, the Steelers awoke to the news that Darryl Drake was dead, their wide receivers coach by job description but their spiritual compass and support system in reality. A man who had been with them for barely 18 months and yet had managed to make a lifelong impact on so many of them was gone, ripped from them by a horrible tragedy.
At the end of that week from hell was a football game, the second of four in this preseason, and it was their job to perform to a standard, to a professional level if they wanted to have a future in this profession. And so it was that some five days after meeting with grief counselors the Steelers had a football game to play against the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field, and even though that game would not count in the standings it still was one where jobs would be on the line.
Their sport is not for the mentally weak, and it cannot be played without the proper approach leading up to kickoff and then without the proper mind-set once the football is on the tee. After being given some space and a couple of days to come to terms with their grief, the Steelers went back to work, but things were hardly back to normal. Their first practice after Drake’s death reflected their fragile emotional state, and while it got better the next day they still were having to deal with the constant reminders of the man they had lost.
Instead of some of the traditional camp-ending merriment, such as the rookie show and home run derby, the Steelers boarded buses and visited the funeral home to pay their last respects. Their practices included impromptu prayer circles that grew larger as players noticed they were happening. When players felt they were ready to talk to the media about their loss, they did so with heavy hearts and red eyes.
But finally, game day was upon them, but even that wasn’t exactly normal. After they strapped on their helmets with the memorial “DD” sticker on the back, lightning moved through the area and postponed kickoff for an hour. When that finally passed, the teams warmed up all over again, and just before kickoff the Steelers formed one last prayer circle right on their sideline. Then they went to work.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, not by a long shot, but it was one that honored Darryl Drake because it was focused and workmanlike and got the job done to the tune of a 17-7 victory.
The Chiefs are a much better team than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Steelers defeated in their preseason opener, and that was reflected in the way the game unfolded. Mason Rudolph started at quarterback for the Steelers, and his performance was more resilient that brilliant, as evidenced by the fact he finished his portion of the game with a passer rating of 79.0 but on a 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive staking his team to a 7-0 lead he completed 5-of-6 for 60 yards, including 2-for-2 for 35 yards on third downs.
And it was somewhat appropriate that the young receivers, once viewed as Drake’s personal hunks of clay to mold into savvy professionals, stepped up as a group in a way that undoubtedly would’ve made their position coach proud.
Second-year pro James Washington led the group with four catches for 78 yards while continuing down the path toward fulfilling the expectations that come with being a second-round draft choice. Rookie Diontae Johnson, a player Drake referred to on the day he was drafted by the Steelers as “a tremendously gifted young man and the most natural catcher (of the football) I’ve seen in a while,” saw his first game action and lived up to those words.
Johnson made an NFL adjustment on one pass for a 24-yard touchdown that was nullified by a phantom pass interference penalty, but he came back with a sweet diving catch later in the game for a 24-yard touchdown that was allowed to stand.
But this game turned out to be about more than a couple of young wide receivers who would’ve made their position coach proud. This was about each member of a team finding it within himself to put personal feelings aside and coming together to get a job done as a group. It was about more than the defense’s three takeaways on fumble recoveries, about more than standing toe-to-toe with one of the better teams in the NFL.
Several players wore T-shirts under their uniforms that bore a message Darryl Drake constantly preached to them: “Shut out the noise.” That’s what this game was about for these Steelers, and the way they handled the task during a trying week would’ve made their wide receivers coach proud.