The game is so big that sometimes it can overshadow other things that should, in theory, hold more significance, even if they take place inside of the game. With everything that happened over the course of the 2019 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, at least for those on the outside, it may be easy to forget about the untimely passing of former wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. The NFL itself did when they put together their ‘in memoriam’ montage for 2019.
Diontae Johnson won’t forget. While Drake was only with the Steelers for about a year and a half, coaching through one season, he made a big impression on a lot of people in there, and he had a long NFL career, connected with the careers of many wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall.
And Johnson is the last player that Drake would ever campaign to draft. The Steelers did so early in the third round in 2019. He would go on to lead the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns during his rookie season, as well as being second in yards. The Toledo product reflected on Drake during an interview with Missi Matthews.
It was hard, just meeting a person like that. He’s a special person to me. Just not being able to get to go through a season with him. You just feel like a couple, 2-3 months with him, and he’s gone like that, it’s just crazy. It’s like, what do you do? I had to stick around my teammates, the guys in the receiver room. We had to rally around each other and want to play for one another, and play for him in general. Just by doing that allowed me to have a level head, because there was so much going through my mind each and every day, like, ‘what am I gonna do? How am I gonna practice? How’s my attitude gonna be today?’. I wouldn’t have been in this position if it wasn’t for my teammates. I’ve gotta give everything to them, because they got me through this year.
Drake passed away suddenly one night during training camp. He never even got to see Johnson play inside of a stadium. Because of an injury, he missed the first preseason game. But he made his debut a week later and would catch three passes for 46 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. He played that game for Drake—as well as every game since, because he feels he’s watching.
“I’m pretty sure he was smiling every week. Just watching me play. I felt like he was out there watching each and every week”, he said. “I mean, I played for him each snap. Whether that was on the field or off the field, I thought about him every day. It’s just a guy you just can’t let go. It’s hard, but then you’ve gotta move forward. He’s still gonna be with us going into next year, we’re still gonna play for him, nothing’s gonna change. I can’t thank that man enough for believing in me and pushing for me like he did”.
Johnson is part of a nucleus of young talent at wide receiver that the Steelers will be relying upon in 2020 and beyond, also featuring JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, the latter being the other wide receiver that Drake drafted. They all remember him quite fondly, and quite well. The NFL may have forgotten about him, but these three will not.