“Coach Drake always called us his sons. He didn’t have any boys. He always called us his sons. We took that at the beginning of camp. He just called us his sons.”
Those words, courtesy of the team’s official website, were spoken by Steelers receiver Ryan Switzer, as he addressed the media on Thursday in the days after the tragic and sudden death of receivers coach Darryl Drake, who passed away Sunday morning at the age of 62.
Switzer, in his second season in Pittsburgh, had a hard time holding back tears as he spoke to reporters, which was also the case on Tuesday, following a team prayer right before the start of the first training camp session since Drake’s death.
As Switzer wiped away the tears on Tuesday, he was consoled by second-year receiver James Washington. JuJu Smith-Schuster, the third-year man and presumptive leader of the receiving corps, hasn’t been his usual jovial self, and he is taking the loss of his position coach as hard as anyone else.
Drake’s passing was obviously a huge blow, both professionally and personally, as head coach Mike Tomlin described it on Tuesday. Drake was a well-respected coach, not only in the NFL, but in the college ranks, where Tomlin first befriended him over two decades ago.
But Drake wasn’t just respected for his work with receivers, he was respected for how he treated them.
And that’s why it has to be especially hard for these guys.
Something resonated with me as Switzer spoke with the media on Thursday. He mentioned that this was the first death of anyone he’s ever been close to. Switzer is 24 years old and married.
Smith-Schuster entered the NFL two years ago as a 20-year old who didn’t know how to drive. Washington just turned 23 in the spring. Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft, is also 23 and has yet to play a single down of professional football—preseason or otherwise.
It’s easy to forget that, in many aspects of life, a lot of these guys are just babies and likely haven’t been touched by something so tragic as the sudden loss of a relative/friend/coach/mentor.
I was just days shy of my 22nd birthday when I experienced it for the first time—and I was expecting it.
I can’t even comprehend enduring what those guys did over the weekend. Imagine an entire team living on a campus—coaches, players, trainers, doctors, etc. You’re in your early-20s, you go to sleep thinking about nothing but work and play, and you wake up the next morning to the news that a family member, a coach, a mentor, has died without warning.
How do you process all that goes along with a sudden death?
As Switzer’s emotions told us on Thursday, maybe you can’t process it, not at that age, not when it’s likely your first time.
As fans, it’s easy for us to go on social media and say things like, “They need to dedicate this season to Coach Drake and bring home a seventh Lombardi!” But that’s how we view just about everything Steelers-related. It’s always our goal.
For a player, especially a young one, he may look at things a bit differently.
Smith-Schuster is expected to be a leader, but now he has to do it without his leader.
Washington is expected to make a big leap this year, but now he has to jump without the only receiver coach he’s ever known at the professional level there with a safety net just in case.
Switzer said on Thursday that he trusted Drake, that trust is something other teams and coaches have betrayed a few times so far in his young football career. Switzer may or may not be in another fight to stay on an NFL roster. Where does he stand? What are his chances? He’ll have to figure all of that out without his football father to guide and reassure him.
In many ways, what the Steelers young receivers are going through right now is a learning experience that they can lean on for the rest of their lives.
The sad irony for these young receivers as they mourn their tragic loss, is the man they’re mourning was probably the first person they would have turned to to help them process such a life-altering event.