Steelers return to practice while grieving loss of coach

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              In this photo from Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake talks to a receiver during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Pittsburgh. The team said Drake, who joined the coaching staff in 2018, died early Sunday morning, Aug. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Gray, rainy skies and a subdued, sparse fan turnout made for a fitting setting Tuesday as the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to practice for the first time since the sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Drake, a longtime NFL and college assistant, was found dead in his Saint Vincent College campus dormitory room Sunday. He was 62. The Steelers canceled Sunday’s practice and bumped up an idle day to Monday to allow extra time for players, coaches and staff to absorb the loss.

After stretches and before team drills began upon the return to Chuck Noll Field on Tuesday, most of the Steelers’ offensive skill-position players gathered near midfield for a group prayer.

“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant,” head coach Mike Tomlin said of Drake earlier Tuesday. “But personally, it’s even bigger. Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with coach Drake all feel that way.”

But for a team grappling with the grief over a beloved assistant, the meetings and drills that resumed Tuesday mark a return to routine. Whether that accelerates the healing is unclear.

“I don’t know that it does,” Tomlin said during a news conference in which he fought back tears. “But we’ve got professional obligations … so we intend to march.”

Tomlin called a Tuesday morning full-squad meeting the “most important film session of the year.” It was the team’s first football work in what had been a quiet 48 hours on the rural campus an hour east of Pittsburgh.

Tomlin said some players and coaches stayed at Saint Vincent to grieve while others chose to go back to their homes in Pittsburgh. The Steelers made grief counselors available to players and staff.

“It’s been said that counseling is not for the weak but the wise,” Tomlin said. “So we seek people who have expertise and help dealing with such circumstances.”

Players were to offer their first public comments about the loss of Drake in speaking with reporters after Tuesday’s practice, but the players hastily headed to the locker room when the session was postponed after lightning was spotted. The practice was ultimately canceled about an hour before it was scheduled to end.

Drake was in his second season with the team, but 16th in the NFL and 37th season in college or pro coaching. His relationship with Tomlin spans more than two decades.

“I was a young wide receivers coach at Arkansas State, and he was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game,” Tomlin said, his face lighting up for a rare moment during a 15-minute session with reporters.

“I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice — that’s how he described it in terms of being my friend. I was too persistent, and he extended courtesies to me, like he does a lot of young guys like myself. We developed a rapport and our relationship grew from there.”

Tomlin called Drake, “a father, a mentor, an adviser.” He said the team has tributes planned but did not elaborate. Tomlin also declined to share funeral arrangements, deferring to Drake’s family.

“It’s whatever they say,” Tomlin said. “We all feel that way.”

As to who will replace Drake or fill his duties as a position coach, Tomlin said the team is “in the process of developing a plan.”

“It’s in place. I just don’t wish to discuss the intimate details,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s appropriate at this time.”

During Tuesday’s abbreviated practice, coaching assistant Blaine Stewart and former longtime NFL assistant Ray Sherman were working with the receivers. The son of late former West Virginia University coach Bill Stewart, Blaine Stewart is in his second season as a coaching assistant with the Steelers.

The Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 1998, the 67-year-old Sherman served as wide receivers coach for four NFL teams between 2000-2015. He has previously has been a guest of Tomlin’s during this camp.