Villanueva: ‘We have to get focused’


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Running back James Conner (30) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

LATROBE, Pa. -- Everyone deals with grief in different ways.

But one thing is becoming apparent for the Steelers as they deal with the sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. When you're part of a professional sports team, there's little time to mourn. The game must go on.

That was the message from several players who spoke to the media for the first time since Drake died Sunday morning here at Saint Vincent College.

Everyone will continue to mourn in their own way. But it's time to get back to work.

"I think Coach (Mike) Tomlin has done a very good job of understanding what Coach Drake would want from all of us right now," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "Coach Drake would not want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a good sense of humor about this. So, for us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play. We have to get focused. The playmakers have to make plays, and it’s a great opportunity to honor his life, his legacy, by making those plays, by staying focused and playing our best football."

The Steelers players went to a vigil Tuesday night for Drake, 62, who had been with the team since last season. It was a short time period to be with the team, but he made an obvious impact on the players around him.

"Guys are hurt. They're sad. He was an amazing man," wide receiver Eli Rogers said. "He was a really spiritual person. He believed in God. He was impactful in that way."

Rogers was the only wide receiver to speak about Drake's death on Wednesday. For JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer and Tevin Jones, it was still too soon.

Former Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth spent two years with the Bears when Drake was on the staff there and said he understands the loss the players are going through right now.

"It’s tough. It’s tough for all of them," Spaeth said. "I think a coach is as close to a father as there really is. People don’t realize the amount of time we spend with our coaches. It’s all the time, and you become very, very close with them. These guys have gotten to know him very well, so it’s a really big loss for some of these guys."

And it goes beyond football. As Spaeth mentioned, this is like losing a member of the family.

The players, even those who weren't in his position room, respected the way Drake handled the situation with Antonio Brown at the end of last season. Brown went AWOL on the team before its regular season finale against the Bengals, a game the Steelers needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive.

"He had a pretty important role with so many distractions in the locker room," Villanueva said. "We all felt he handled it very well. We thought he upheld the value of our team and the unity, and helping each other out. His voice was very much heard. His values, he was definitely one of the coaches that helped us get through a tough season and a tough end of the season last year."

And now the team must find a way to move on and get itself refocused on the task ahead.

The Steelers will break training camp Friday and head back to the Rooney Sports Complex to continue preparations for the 2019 season. They'll play their second preseason game Saturday at Heinz Field against the Chiefs.

In less than a month, they'll open the regular season at New England against the Patriots.

Villanueva, a U.S. Army veteran, was asked if dealing with the loss of a comrade-at-arms compares to this.

"You can’t compare the two," he said. "In the Army, you prepare. You expect these things to happen. They definitely unify the group when they do happen, maybe not for the right reasons, but they definitely have an impact on the morale of the unit. Sometimes, you want to go and get those who are responsible, the culprits. In this instance, there’s not one person doing anything."

Instead, it will take a group effort to heal and move past this.

The Steelers have provided grief counselors for the players and staff. Tomlin has worked hard on keeping some kind of normalcy in their lives.

But there will continue to be some issues.

"Death is part of life. You cannot have life without death," Villanueva said. "It’s something everybody has to deal with individually at some point. It will come to all of us. Religion helps some. Obviously, we’re here at Saint Vincent. I’m Catholic. For me, it might be a little more easy to deal with than some other people. They’re looking for questions and answers. I don’t want to put pressure and I don’t want to put my beliefs in my narrative with my teammates. They’ll deal with that. People have their own experiences."



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