Michigan football mourns death of 30-year-old Charles Drake

For two weeks, the messages have flown across the country.

On Facebook. Texts. Phone calls. Every day is something new — a memory, a thought, a laugh.

That’s all members of the Michigan football family have to share about their former teammate and friend Charles Drake, who died July 6 in Culver City, Calif. He was 30. The cause of death is unclear.

A group of five or six of Drake’s closest friends from his U-M career (1999-2002) have shared stories, remembering what Drake brought to their lives, bonding as only football players can in their experiences.

“We did everything together,” former U-M receiver Ron Bellamy said today, leading up to Drake’s funeral Thursday in Los Angeles. “We used to always say when we get our shot we won’t look back and we became best friends for life. When you go through a college football program, it’s intense and Michigan’s even unique within that. We’re all 30 or 31 now, and we met 13 years ago and remain great friends. … It was one of those things, and we never take that for granted.”

The memories have flooded back to the players and coaches since the devastating news.

Former U-M offensive lineman Courtney Morgan and Drake were inseparable. They met as teens in L.A., attended Westchester High and came to Michigan together.

“We were both big college football fans out here and grew up with an appreciation for the big programs,” Morgan said. “When it came time to make a decision, at that time it was 1998 and Michigan was on top, having won the national championship, it was kind of a no-brainer. We weren’t scared to compete. A lot of people in California tried to talk us out of going out there and staying at USC, but we felt Michigan put us on a bigger stage.”

Drake came to Michigan with dreams of being an elite running back but got only 12 carries as a freshman. Midway through the year, he was moved to defensive back — former U-M coach Lloyd Carr said the staff always thought he could play both — and worked his way into a strong enough career at safety and cornerback that he was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Giants in 2003.

Though the NFL never worked out, Drake left a strong impression during his time at Michigan. There are stories that still resonate a decade later.

Bellamy laughed when recalling the time Tyrece Butler claimed to be the team’s fastest receiver by saying he was the “sleeper” and didn’t get anywhere near that in the runoff. When the receivers came back in, there was Drake, fake-sleeping on a bench, mocking Butler’s comment.

Drake was light-hearted, trying to find ways to connect with people. Morgan didn’t realize the reach until recently as the outpouring of condolences have poured his way.

“I got a message from a guy on Facebook, a guy Drake met at his freshman orientation,” Morgan said. “He said they spent that whole week hanging out. He’d always find a couple people to relate to wherever he was. (The guy) always followed Charles and said the few times he ran into Charles, he was warm and genuine. He said he remembered that after all these years.”

Carr pointed to Drake’s loss as “incredibly sad,” losing one of his players so young, but he remembers the energy Drake brought to the team.

“What stands out in my memory about him is he always had a smile, and he was always so well liked by has teammates and his coaches,” Carr said. “What I liked about him was he was always positive. He handled the stress of being a college athlete well.”

For Brandon Williams, the former U-M defensive back, it’s like a faucet, once the memories start, he can’t turn them off.

There was that game Michigan played as seniors early in the 2002 season against Utah. The ball came right at Drake in the secondary and he dropped it. Without a career interception, that was his chance.

Michigan won the game but the play stayed with him.

“We clowned him on the field laughing at him and having fun,” Williams said of their off-campus housing with Morgan, Drake and Carl Diggs. “But the best part of college was, no matter whose error it was, somebody’s parents would be in for the weekend and come over the next morning to make us breakfast before we went to practice. That weekend it was Drake’s parents.”

Instead of the morning breakfast, Drake got a little lesson.

“His dad woke me and him and said, ‘come on son, let me show you something’ and he had us playing catch outside with an orange,” Williams said laughing, barely able to spit out the story a decade later. “’If you can catch the orange, you can catch the ball.’ He wasn’t doing it to be a smart ass. He was saying, ‘You’ve got to catch the ball. While we out there, Drake was saying, ‘come on dad.’ And I’m laughing.”

As Williams tells it, a week later the Wolverines were at Illinois and Drake got his chance, caught the ball for his only career interception and returned it 24 yards.

“I let him have it,” Williams said. “’See your dad knew what he was talking about with the orange.’ That’s the very first thing that popped in my head as I thought about him.”

Williams did the difficult part recently, calling Drake’s parents after hearing the news and sharing stories with them – “the hardest conversation of my life.”

But he’s glad he did.

It helped him remember when they were freshmen in West Quad and, seeing the first snowfall of their lives, when Drake and Jon Shaw from Florida went into the courtyard to start throwing it at everybody.

Williams, from Nebraska yelled out to the pair (who got sick as a result): “There’ll be more…”

He taught Drake how to use hot water to free up an iced over door handle and Williams succumbed to Drake’s relentless peer pressure in 2003 to force him back to Ann Arbor for the 100th Ohio State game with most of their 1999 classmates, who were in their fifth year.

That’s why Williams found a flight flew in Saturday morning, found a ticket and they sat together in the stands and, for the first game ever at U-M as fans, jumped the wall and ran on the field to celebrate with their former teammates.

“We loved the experience,” Williams said. “We would have tailgated if we could have.”


Posted by Tribune News Services

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