LATROBE, Pa. -- Rain poured down Tuesday on the Steelers' first practice since the death of receivers coach Darryl Drake, almost like the sky was crying.
The Steelers returned to the practice field here at Saint Vincent College for the first time since learning Drake, 62, had died here on campus after the team returned from its preseason opener Friday night against the Buccaneers.
But the practice lasted just under an hour as thunderstorms rolled through the area, ending the session prematurely.
That was enough time, however, for the team's offensive skill players and several coaches to meet at midfield for a prayer prior to the start of the workout. Almost as if on cue, that was when the rain began.
An emotional Mike Tomlin took to the podium earlier in the day and recalled the first time he met Drake.
Tomlin, then a young wide receivers coach at Arkansas State, approached Drake, Baylor's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time, and asked for some tips on how to do the job.
"He was viewed as one of the top wide receiver coaches in the college game," Tomlin said. "I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, or that’s how he described it, in terms of being my friend. I was too persistent. He extended courtesies to me, like he does a lot of young guys in the profession. That’s why we feel the way about him that we do. He sent me drill tapes and things of that nature. We developed a rapport. Our relationship grew from there."
Drake, 62, died Sunday morning, leaving the team with both a void on the coaching staff, but more important, a void in their collective hearts.
Drake is survived by his wife, Sheila, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian as well as two grandchildren.
His sudden death left Tomlin and his staff searching for ways to help the team cope with the loss.
"We’re all devastated. I really can’t think of any other appropriate words," Tomlin said. "Our time and attention in recent days has been spent in support of the Drake family. Ms. Shelia and Darryl’s daughters and extended family, many of us have had an opportunity to spend time through this. They’ve been amazing. In just adjusting and making arrangements, we’ve tried to be as supportive organizationally as we can be in what is a very difficult time.
"Professionally, the loss is significant. Personally, it’s even bigger. Those of us who knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake feel that way. We realize we don’t have a lot of answers. That being said, we brought some professional grief counselors in to assist us through this tough time. It’s been said that counseling is not for the weak, but the wise. We seek people who have expertise in dealing with these type of circumstances."
The Steelers have two more days remaining after Tuesday before they break camp and head back to the Rooney Sports Complex to continue preparations for the 2019 season.
They'll obviously do so with heavy hearts that won't go away anytime soon. The team will continue to find ways to honor Drake, who was hired in 2018 to replace longtime receivers coach Richard Mann following his retirement. That will include a moment of silence at their preseason game Saturday at Heinz Field against the Chiefs. The team also will hold a private vigil Tuesday night after practice.
"We fully intend to pay our respects to Coach Drake continuously, not only in the upcoming days and this weekend, but continually as we push through this journey of 2019," Tomlin said. "I just don’t want to get into the details of it right now."
Tomlin also didn't want to get into the details of how the Steelers will replace Drake on the field, though he said a plan is in place. That plan began to take shape at Tuesday afternoon's practice when longtime NFL assistant coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator Ray Sherman was spotted working with the team's receivers.
"We are in the process of developing a plan there. It’s in place," Tomlin said. "I just don’t wish to discuss the intimate details. I don’t believe that’s appropriate at this time."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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