It’s hard for fans to truly measure the impact an individual has on the game. When people on the inside open up, we often find interesting answers for why a certain player, staffer, or coach meant so much to the sport. One of these moments occurred last year when former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake passed away last year.
Drake never moved up to the head coach role that his career might’ve offered had he lived longer. But his role in each organization he touched went beyond simply supporting the head coach in his niche. Drake improved teams on a personal level, man to man. Here’s his story told with some help from Larry Fitzgerald.
Darryl Drake’s coaching career
Last August, the Steelers organization lost a giant of the game. He went to the hospital with chest pain. He was released after tests, insisting that he now felt fine. Hours later, he was found dead, according to The Athletic, in his Steelers dorm room.
Drake was a WR for Western Kentucky University from 1975 to 1978. He didn’t make the NFL draft that year, according to his biography on the page of his future employer, the Chicago Bears. Drake still made it into the league, playing for various practice squads but never participated in a regular-season NFL game.
He found his stride as a coach, spending 21 years at the collegiate level. Drake broke into the NFL as the Bears’ WR coach in 2004. This was what he was great at, and he stuck to the role for the rest of his career.
Drake’s special connection with Larry Fitzgerald
Drake’s loss was devastating for the team. He’d only been working with the organization for a single season. During that time, he made an indelible impact on each player he worked with. Drake had a reputation coming into the team, as well, with so many positive experiences shared about his time on all three NFL teams he played for.
Running back James Conner, who struggled with a life-changing brush with death, sought counsel from Drake. It was current Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald who grew closest to Drake. The young WR mourned Drake’s passing without reservation according to USA Today.
“Coaching on the football field, he was obviously great,” Fitzgerald said on the Sunday after Drake’s death. “But the lasting impact comes with how he challenged you to be a better man, a better father, a better partner in your relationship. How to treat people.”
Fitzgerald considers Drake’s impact to be one that goes well beyond the game. One that will stick with players as they move on from the league, retire, and embark on a new journey. “He was a living testament for how to do it the right way as a human being,” Fitzgerald fittingly concluded.
How the Steelers said goodbye to Drake
Drake arrived at a difficult time for the organization, when beloved locker room figure Antonio Brown’s increasingly erratic behavior went public. His tenure with the team was short, but incredibly impactful because of this. Head coach Mike Tomlin credits Drake with bringing a sense of order to the team during that period.
His loss loomed larger than many NFL observers outside of Steelers circles could’ve known. After Drake passed away, the Steelers organization came to a halt. The next two practices were canceled, via Penn Live, to give players and staff time to mourn. When they next played, a live ceremony took place before the game. Your average NFL fan probably never heard of Drake. But for the many players he touched throughout his long career, his lessons endure.