Villanueva, Steelers Remember Darryl Drake

Watch as former Army Ranger delivers thoughts on untimely loss

Josh Rowntree
August 14, 2019 - 2:02 pm

Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva knows death all too well. 

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A former Army Ranger, decorated with a Bronze Star for acts of valor from three deployments to Afghanistan, Villanueva watched his brothers in arms die on battlefields. 

Now Villanueva, and the rest of the Steelers organization, are tasked with moving on from the unexpected passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, who died Sunday morning in Latrobe. 

“It’s a tough blow for the organization, but I think the best thing we can do to honor him is do exactly what he wanted us to do and that’s to go out, play hard, try our best and do it in his memory and according to the values he instilled in all of us,” Villanueva said Wednesday morning, the first time that players have been available to speak with the media. 

“When you have somebody that has such a genuine personality everybody sort of becomes attracted to them. It was very obvious, especially in the offense. All of the offensive line had individual jokes with him, Ben (Roethlisberger) had a close relationship with him and then obviously the receivers and tight ends who worked very close with him.”

Drake was 62. The cause of death is still unknown, however the Westmoreland County Coroner has ruled out anything “suspicious.”

Villanueva’s experience with loss goes beyond most people’s comprehension, so he did not feel it was necessarily or appropriate to compare situations.

“In the army, you prepare for these things to happen, you expect these things to happen,” he said. “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 it’s vengeful, you want to get who is responsible, the culprits. In this case, there was not one person doing it. The kids that die in battle are usually 18 or 19 years old, so that’s a little tougher to swallow.”

That said, many Steelers players were still visibly impacted by Drake’s death during Tuesday’s practice, cancelled early do to weather. Wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer all informed the team’s media relations department that they did not wish to speak yet on the matter. 

In situations like this, everyone will react differently. That is to be expected and understandable. Villanueva’s outlook, brought on by death and war being an all-too-frequent occurance, is a bit more stoic than others, of course.

“You do learn some very valuable lessons about death,” he said. They make you appreciated life. Death is 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.”

Drake was only in his second year with the Steelers. But the long-time coaching veteran had made a strong impact on the entire organization, which now is focused on remembering the life of a friend and mentor before moving on.

“It’s been a little tough, but guys are coming back together,” rookie running back Benny Snell said. “Right now I see it as, like, this is just going to make us better, especially with the quarterbacks and the receivers group. We’re brothers around here. We’ve got each others back when we’re down, so it’s just all up from here… for Drake.”

Leading the way is the team’s head coach, Mike Tomlin, who poignantly and eloquently represented the team during his Tuesday morning press conference.

“I’ve got to give big props to coach Tomlin for handling this situation in terms of his leadership, his ability to make decisions, to change the schedule accordingly and to make sure our minds are in the right place, which is the family of coach Drake,” Villanueva said, adding that the team can draw on the interactions they had with their departed coach.

“Coach Drake would not want us to dwell on this,” he said. “He definitely would want us to have a big sense of humor about this. For us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play, that we have to get focused. 

“Playmakers have to make plays and it’s a great opportunity to honor his life, his legacy, by making those plays, staying focused and playing our best football.“

Hear all of what Alejandro Villanueva had to say below.