Since the passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 Training Camp has taken a turn for the worse. What was an emotionally charged camp, built with players who were destined to write their own page in the Steelers’ history books, turned into a somber memorial of a loved one lost.
After cancelling practice Sunday and Monday, the team reported to practice on Tuesday — if you would even call it practice. The team did some individual drills, fumbled their way through some team drills before the heavens opened and practice was ended early.
Before and after practice no players were available for comment.
Wednesday came and the team knew they had to have someone speak with the media, after all, they have a job to do too. In other words, the Steelers needed a voice, and they found it in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Villanueva stood and answered questions about Mike Tomlin’s leadership, the team moral and what he thought Coach Drake would want the team to do moving forward.
His responses in the media scrum courtesy of Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Can Villanueva compare the loss of Drake to the loss of a member of the military?
“You can’t compare the two,” Villanueva said. “In the Army, you prepare for these things to happen. You expect these things to happen. They definitely unify the group when the do happen. Maybe not for the right reasons, but they definitely have an impact on morale of the unit.
“Sometimes it’s vengeful and you want to get the culprits. In this case, it was not one person doing it. The kids that died in battle are usually 18-19 years old, and that’s tougher to swallow. You look at their kids that they’ll never be able to meet. It’s part of the culture.
“You deal with death. Once you get over the deployments, once you can put it in the rear view mirror, you can learn some very valuable lessons about death. It makes you appreciate life. Death is a part of life. You cannot have life without death. It’s something that individually everyone has to deal with at some point because it does come to all of us.”
In Villanueva’s opinion, how has Tomlin handled this situation?
“Today is kind of the first day we’re getting back into the schedule, but it’s going to be interesting how we honor him throughout the season,” Villanueva said. “Individually, each player will have a different plan. Collectively, it’s been pretty impressive and pretty tough on Coach Tomlin to deal with the loss of one of his coaches.”
“I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good job of understanding what Coach Drake would want from all of us at this moment,” he said. “He’s not going to want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a big sense of humor. For us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play, that we have to get focused, that playmakers have to make plays.
“It’s a great opportunity to honor his life and his legacy by making those plays, by staying focused and by playing our best football.”
What role did Drake play with the team outside of the wide receiver room?
“He had a pretty important role with some of the distractions in the locker room,” Villanueva said. “He spoke of the values of the team and unity and helping each other out. His voice was heard, his values. He definitely was one who helped us get through the tough end of the season last year.”
“He just walked in, he didn’t have to do any introductions, he started opening up his mind, being a very outspoken leader about the things he thought needed to be said,” Villanueva said. “People respected that, people responded to that.”
Maybe it is the Army background of Villanueva, or maybe it is just upfront, easy-going nature which made him the perfect man for the job, but there is a calming presence around Villanueva. It was Villanueva who answered questions about the Steelers’ National Anthem escapade in Chicago, and it was Villanueva to stand up and take the brunt of the questions off the shoulder of his teammates Wednesday.
Like in the military, Villanueva is the ultimate teammate, and he was the perfect person for the job when the team needed a voice after Drake’s death.
Watch Villanueva’s full interview session below:
Alejandro Villanueva on Coach Drake: "Everyone respected him." pic.twitter.com/pBX2oFu5hF— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 14, 2019