Darryl Drake’s coaching bonafides are indisputable, presented neatly and chronologically in a timeline dating back to his days as a Western Kentucky University graduate assistant in 1983. The list of the men he molded in his four stops in the college ranks and his three jobs in the NFL include both certain Hall of Fame inductees and nobodies from nowhere, and he impacted the careers of them all.
Darryl Drake died early Sunday morning. He was 62.
“We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith, and the game of football. Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren, and entire family during this difficult time.”
The last two of a 37-season coaching career had been with the Steelers when Coach Mike Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh to replace the retired Richard Mann in 2018.
“Darryl was a close friend and had a tremendous impact on my coaching career,” said Tomlin. “He was an amazing husband, father, and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now. Darryl loved the game of football and every player he ever coached. We will use our faith to guide us and help his family throughout the difficult time. My heart and our prayers are with his wife, Sheila, and Darryl’s entire family.”
But it truly was in the game of life where Darryl Drake starred, because he was a better man than he was a coach. And there was a moment in time that Darrius Heyward-Bey recalled where Drake stepped up and delivered in both of those categories during the end of what was his first season with the Steelers.
“Last year, even our rollercoaster of a season that we had, as the new guy he was the one who brought it all together,” said Heyward-Bey. “I don’t know if anyone is going to speak on this, but I am. Coach Drake is the one who held a team meeting with just the players that helped us through the dysfunction we had going on at the end of the year. For him to take a stand and be a leader as the new guy on the coaching staff, that speaks volumes about the type of person he was.”
It unfolded at the team hotel on the Saturday night before the regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game the Steelers had to win to have any chance of making the playoffs. Antonio Brown had been AWOL for days, and it seemed as though a dark cloud was hovering over the team at this critical stage of their season. Tomlin had finished addressing the team, and he and the rest of the assistant coaches were leaving the ballroom.
“(Drake) said, ‘I want everyone to stay in here; I have some words.’ It was so important he did that,” said Heyward-Bey. “(The message he gave us was) that we are a family. We all need to help each other. We all have flaws. The fact that we see each other more than we see our own families, we need to bond together. That was his message. I agreed with everything he said that day.”
The Steelers held up their end by finding a way to defeat the Bengals, but their hopes for the playoffs were dashed when Baltimore defeated Cleveland to claim the AFC North Division title and the playoff spot that went along with it.
“For him to be a new guy in this community, coaching staff, in our building, and for him to command that respect, that is huge,” said Heyward-Bey. “That speaks of the type of man he was. Everybody – offense, defense, special teams – respected the person he was. Coach Drake, he was the man. It wasn’t a shock to us as a receiving corps. He gave that to us every day. He kept it real. He kept it raw. That’s what you love.”
Drake was bitten by the coaching bug after his own football career ended following two unsuccessful NFL training camps. Drake then returned to Western Kentucky and earned his master’s degree in 1984 while serving as a graduate assistant, and then in 1985 he was hired full-time by the Hilltoppers to coach the wide receivers. In 1997, Drake was coaching the wide receivers at Baylor when he impacted a young man’s life in a significant way.
Josh McCown’s older brother, Randy, was a scholarship quarterback at Texas A&M, but that wasn’t doing anything to help him earn his own football scholarship. Then Josh McCown went to a football camp at Baylor, and his life intersected with Darryl Drake’s.
“I just went to the camp at Baylor, and other than my older brother being a big-name football player, nobody cared who I was,” said McCown. “I had not played. I’m just down there working hard and trying to do everything they ask me to do. You don’t know where it’s going, and nobody is telling you anything. All of a sudden, Coach Drake, like he does, says, ‘Come here baby. Come here.’ I said, ‘What’s up coach?’ He said, ‘You are going to be all right baby, you are going to be all right. You can play at this level.’
“He sent me in to talk to the head coach (Dave Roberts) and the head coach made it clear. He said, ‘Coach Drake loves you. He thinks you have big-time talent.’ What he did for me in that moment put wind in my sails. To go from a guy who was living in his big brother’s shadow to trying to make it on his own, he put wind in my sails by saying you’re doing the right thing, by saying you can do this.”
McCown chose SMU instead of Baylor and then had a 15-year NFL career.
“I ended up going to SMU, but we stayed in contact, crossed paths,” said McCown. “I always let him know how much he meant to me. He was the first college authority who looked at me and said, ‘You can play at this level, you are good enough.’ It was what a guy who was struggling with his confidence needed. I will always love him for that. He meant a lot to me. We look at people in our lives who gave a word of encouragement, and you never know what that one word means. That is what made Coach Drake special. He was always loving people. He was always saying good things to people. He was a big part of me believing in myself. I shared that with him and tons of people.”
Included in those “tons of people” are McCown’s sons.
“I was trying to describe him to my sons,” said McCown. “I told them whatever your comfort level with Darryl was, you probably put him in a box with a relative. If you were super close, he was like a father. If you were younger, one of the young guys, he might be like a grandfather. If you were an acquaintance, maybe around him a little bit, he was like an uncle. He had that kind of personality. He felt like family. You didn’t have to be around him much. It’s a credit to his heart and what he was about. You felt like he was part of you. That is how I sum him up. He has the personality that makes you feel like family.”
Larry Fitzgerald and Hines Ward would agree, because it was Drake who Fitzgerald calls, “one of the greatest mentors and friends in my life since we met,” just as it was Drake, then the receivers coach at Georgia who got Ward to play his college football in Athens, Ga.
“I’m heartbroken for anyone who had the privilege to know Darryl,” said Fitzgerald. “As a man, a coach, a husband, and a father, he was as good as they come. I can’t put into words the impact that Darryl had on me … he was my position coach (with the Arizona Cardinals) for five years, and he’s been one of the greatest mentors and friends in my life since we met. We’ll get through this difficult time by focusing on all of the love that Darryl had for others and that we all had for him — it’s what he would want. Let faith guide us all through this incredibly difficult moment…sending prayers to all of the extended Drake family, especially to his incredible wife Sheila and their beautiful children.”
Ward was a highly-recruited athlete at Forest Park High School when he first encountered Drake.
“He has been a huge part of my life, pretty much for half of my life, and it started when he recruited me to Georgia,” said Ward. “Our relationship has always been close ever since then. He was that father figure to me my whole life. He taught me the game of football, the receiver position. He was always about blocking. Then he knew I had aspirations about coaching, and I asked him what made it worthwhile in his life. And he said, ‘Coaching guys like you. To see you take the tools I taught you and apply it and go on to have a successful career.’”
Ward currently is a coaching intern with the New York Jets where he works with the wide receivers, and Ward also used what he learned from Drake at Georgia to fashion a pretty darn good career in the NFL as well. Ward still sits atop the Steelers’ all-time lists in catches with 1,000, in yards with 12,083, and in receiving touchdowns with 85. He was voted to four Pro Bowls and had another 88 receptions for 1,181 yards and 10 touchdowns in 18 playoff games. He also owns a couple of Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP trophy. Ward will be inducted into the Steelers Hall of Honor on Sept. 29.
“Hearing his voice on my voicemail after we won Super Bowl XL and I was MVP, that meant the world,” said Ward. “I’m grateful for the relationship and bond we had. I never had a relationship with any of my coaches that lasted that long. I will always be grateful for that. He was a father to a lot of people. To players. To other coaches. Those who worked with him admire him. I was blessed to have a relationship with him, 20-plus years being that mentor for me, the person I could always lean on and count on. It’s so sad I can’t just talk to him anymore.”