LATROBE, Pa. – It was a news conference unlike any Coach Mike Tomlin has had, and that was fitting because this was a situation unlike any the Pittsburgh Steelers ever have experienced. Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake had died some 72 hours earlier, and the business of professional football, which in 1963 didn’t stop for the assassination of the President of the United States and still doesn’t stop for weddings, birthdays, national holidays or any kind of weather except lightning, stopped for the Steelers.
“We’re all devastated by (the passing of Coach Drake). I really can’t think of any other appropriate words,” said Tomlin. “Our time and attention in the recent days has been spent in support of the Drake family. Miss Sheila and Darryl’s daughters and extended family – many of us have had an opportunity to spend time with them through this. They’ve been amazing. In making arrangements and adjusting, we’ve tried to be as supportive organizationally to them as we can in what is a very difficult time.
“Professionally the loss is significant, but personally it’s even bigger. Those of us who knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake all feel that way. We realize we don’t have a lot of answers, and with that being said we brought in some professional grief counselors to assist us through this tough time. It is said that counseling is not for the weak but for the wise, so we seek people who have expertise in helping others deal with such circumstances.”
That was how the Steelers responded to this personal and professional tragedy. There was no practice on Sunday, which was the day Drake died, or Monday. Instead, they grieved and prayed and did what was within their power to offer support and comfort to each other and the Drake family.
The typical media procedure for Tomlin and the Steelers during training camp is that he is available for interviews virtually on a daily basis, either on the field following a padded practice or in a more formal news conference setting once a week. Players are available virtually on a daily basis as well, to be interviewed during a window in the late morning/early afternoon and then also on the field following a padded practice.
That changed in the immediate aftermath of Drake’s death, and so Tomlin made himself available today to ask for understanding given the circumstances and also to provide some updates and answers to questions about many of the things that have transpired since the end of the preseason opener last Friday night against Tampa Bay. And the format of the session was fitting: it was divided into two segments. First came the personal. Then the business.
When Tomlin was asked about his personal relationship with Drake, he said, “It was probably 1997. I was a young wide receivers coach at Arkansas State, and he was viewed as maybe the top wide receivers coach in the college game. I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, as he described it, in terms of being my friend. I was too persistent. He extended courtesies to me, as he does to a lot of guys in my profession, and that’s why we feel about him the way we do. Our relationship grew from there.”
Also, “Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways to the men we worked with, not only now but over the course of his career, which spanned decades. He was a strong Christian brother. We were in a coaches’ group together even before he came here to work with us, and I had the opportunity to spend time with him on a regular basis in that way.”
When the conversation switched over to business, Tomlin opened with what he told the players in a team meeting earlier Tuesday morning.
“We met this morning, and like I outlined for the team, quite frankly it was probably the most important film session of the year for us, because we set a trajectory for expectations and the spirit in which we study tape,” said Tomlin. “We study tape for one reason and one reason only: to get better, to improve for the next time we step into a stadium. So we critique it in that spirit. We can’t be thin-skinned and defensive and so forth, and so we talk openly about those things collectively before we broke down into smaller groups and dissected the video.
“That being said, I thought there were some real positive things, and some things that need to be improved upon,” continued Tomlin. “The biggest thing about when you step into a stadium for the first time is how you utilize this tape experience to be our guide in how we work, specifically in how we spend the rest of our time up here, the drills we do and the focus of those drills and the allocation of people in those drills.”
When asked for some specifics, Tomlin praised the quarterback play; said he was pleased with “the general hustle and finish” in all three phases; and he explained that Devin Bush’s debut reminded him of Ryan Shazier’s first preseason home game “in terms of production and getting around (the field) and making plays.”
Tomlin described Joe Haden’s injury as a contusion and said he along with Maurkice Pouncey, Christian Scotland-Williamson (soft tissue injury), and David DeCastro (training camp soreness) should be the only guys not participating in the first practice since the preseason opener. He also offered an assessment of Cam Sutton’s versatility; Justin Layne’s NFL debut vs. Ulysees Gilbert’s and how the level of the competition each rookie faced needs to be considered in making any judgments; Chris Boswell; the competition at inside linebacker; and the depth at wide receiver.
For that brief time, it was business and business as usual. But sitting in that room on the first floor of Benedict Hall, listening to the Steelers’ coach and looking at him as he spoke made it clear there was nothing about this that was remotely business as usual. Not yet. But in a business that forces people to deal with adversity and find a way to conquer it, Tomlin ended with a promise.
“We have professional obligations … so we intend to march.”