It’s not often that a team experiences a tragedy during the course of a season. It’s happened before, certainly, but there is no set course of action with respect to coming to grips with the practical and emotional fallout that comes along with it, and to do so on the fly.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are just in the infancy stages of figuring out, practically and emotionally, how to continue forward following the tragic and sudden passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Entering his second season with the team, but already extremely well-respected within the organization and around the league, he was 62 at the time of his death, while in his bed in Latrobe on Sunday morning.
The Steelers cancelled the practice that was scheduled that day and moved their off day from Tuesday to Monday, so they only returned to practice yesterday, Head Coach Mike Tomlin addressing the media before practice for the first time since then.
He spoke to reporters for a little over 15 minutes, and the final question that he addressed was whether or not the opportunity to return to football was also a return to normalcy, and if that was an aid in dealing with the circumstances they have been dealt.
“I don’t know that it does”, he said, addressing the reality that anybody who has dealt with a sudden death is very familiar with. “We’ve got professional obligations, just like I’ve got professional obligations to allow you guys to do what it is that you do. So we intend to march”.
‘We intend to march’. It feels like an appropriate battle cry, a rallying point for a team regrouping following a collective tragedy. Among those hardest-hit by Drake’s passing is third-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the player who was probably closest to him on the roster, who saw his breakout 111-catch, 1426-yard Pro Bowl season in their first year working together in 2018.
He was visibly aggrieved out on the field yesterday, with several teammates comforting him at different stages of a fittingly wet and weather-shortened practice. Among them was veteran wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who shared an image of the two together on Instagram Smith-Schuster commented with a #fordrake hashtag.
This is how they intend to march. It is really the only path forward. Rejoin, regroup, and remember. There’s no question that Drake will remain an integral part of the Steelers’ season, something that Tomlin addressed when he said that they would memorialize him throughout the season.
But it’s not even about healing, or growing. It’s simply about getting through life. For many, that is the first phase of getting over the death of a loved one: just figuring out how to make it through the day. Getting up the next morning. Every day brings you closer to healing, but simply returning to ‘normalcy’ is not necessarily a healing agent in and of itself.