Villanueva Praises Tomlin’s Handling Of Team, Leadership Following Drake’s Sudden Passing

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva talked with the media on Wednesday prior to the team’s training camp practice and the former Army captain did a great job of addressing what the team is currently going through following the sudden passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake Sunday morning at the age of 62.

“So, it’s pretty tough,” Villanueva said of Drake’s recent passing. “Other players can deal with adversity a little bit better in terms of getting over a loss, but overall it’s just been pretty tough not just for the offense, but for the whole organization.”

Villanueva was asked Wednesday during his media session if players are working through Drake’s sudden passing collectively, or if it’s each needing to deal with it themselves. In his answer, Villanueva credited Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for playing a big role in helping the team work through the early grief stage.

“I think I got to give big props to the Coach Tomlin for handling this situation, you know, in terms of his leadership, his ability to make decisions, to change the schedule accordingly,” Villanueva said. “To make sure that our mind is in the right place, which is the family of Coach Drake and just, you know, take it a day by day, adjusting. I think today’s the first day that we’re sort of, you know, are getting back into the schedule. But you know, it’s going to be interesting how we honor him [Drake] for the season because I think individually, each player’s going to have a different plan. But I think that collectively as an organization, it’s been pretty impressive and pretty tough on Coach Tomlin to deal with the loss of one of his coaches.”

Because of him previously serving in combat with the Army, Villanueva was asked Wednesday how he dealt with the loss of comrades on the battlefield and if it is all like what the Steelers are going through right now due to Drake’s sudden passing. While Villanueva’s reply to that question was long, it was great and insightful.

“You can’t compare the two,” Villanueva said. “I think in the Army you prepare for these things to happen and you expect these things to happen. 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 know, you want to go get the responsible culprits. In this case it was not one person doing it. And the kids that died in battle are usually 18, 19 years old and so that’s a little bit tougher to swallow when you look at their kids, who they’re never going to meet. And, you know, it’s part of the culture, you know, it’s part of the Army culture to deal with death and I think once you get over the deployments, once you can put it all in the rear view mirror, then you do learn some very valuable lessons about death that make you appreciate life.

“And so death is part of life. You cannot have life without death and it’s something that individually everybody has to deal with at some point, you know, because it does come to all of us. So, religion, you know, it helps some. Obviously we’re here at Saint Vincent and I’m a Catholic and so for me it might be a little bit easier to deal with from some other people that are looking for questions and answers. I don’t want to put pressure and I don’t want to sort of put my beliefs and my narrative on my teammates on how to deal with death. So, you know, people have their own experiences. Afghanistan, Iraq, the war, the life of a soldier is sometimes honored, you know, a lot more and sometimes glorified, you know, when they do die. So, that’s a very dangerous and tough discussion, you know, to compare the two.”

Villanueva was later asked if he thinks it will take the Steelers team long to get back to focusing on football and once again, he praised Tomlin’s efforts to date in his response.

“No, I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good job of understanding sort of what would Coach Drake want from all of us right now at this moment,” Villanueva said. “Coach Drake would not want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a big sense of humor about this. And so for us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play, that we have to get focused, the playmakers have to make plays and that it is a great opportunity to honor his life, his legacy by making those plays by staying focused and by playing our best football.”

The Steelers did get back to football again on Wednesday and the team made it through their first full practice since Drake’s passing as Tuesdays session was cut in half due to inclement weather. After practice ended, Tomlin’s remarks indicated that the team had a good session.

“We had a good, spirit day up here today in full pads, our last full day here in Latrobe in pads,” Tomlin said. “And we didn’t keep any secrets, we revealed that to them and there’s certain urgency with that. Certain things that we do here, the nature in which we work carrying the pads, the drills that we do, it’s just a captured moment and I thought the guys displayed that understanding today with the energy that they brought to the drill work. I thought we had a really good day in that perspective. We’ll keep rolling this ball out here and going to work. We’re about to step into a stadium here again this week so we’ll start working on some of those type things relative to Kansas City.”

The Steelers second preseason game Saturday night at Heinz Field will more than likely included some sort of tribute to Drake and that will almost certainly result in players getting emotional once again. Because of that, it will be interesting to see how quickly those emotionally effected players are able to put it behind so that they can focus on playing their best football against the Kansas City Chiefs. Tomlin’s great leadership will hopefully hep them all do just that.

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