Vikings enter camp on somber note
EAGAN, Minn. -- The football field was Tony Sparano's element, just like the coaching peers he left behind.
Walking in the freshly cut, bright green grass on Wednesday while directing the Minnesota Vikings through their first practice of training camp was, naturally, the best place for Mike Zimmer to be.
"It takes a little bit of the sting away," Zimmer said, pausing to recover from a crack in his voice, "of losing a great friend, a great coach, a good man."
The Vikings and the rest of the NFL were stunned on Sunday when Sparano, their tough-loving offensive line coach, died suddenly at age 56 of heart disease .
"It'll be a hard few days, but we'll get through it and we'll get back to work and do the things that we do," Zimmer said, "and that's what he'd want us to do."
After two days of workouts for rookies and others selected for early duty either due to relative inexperience or a recent injury, the Vikings will take a break Friday to attend Sparano's funeral in the Twin Cities area. Then the entire team will convene for the first full practice on Saturday.
"The most important thing is when you're a family, the family is what helps you get through it," said general manager Rick Spielman, who like Zimmer had to stop for composure several times during an interview session with reporters.
As evidenced by and during the run last season to the NFC championship game, the Vikings from the top down have forged an environment as tightly knit as any point in their history. This is an organization that has seen plenty of dysfunction over 57 years. The solidarity comes in handy at a tragic time like the unexpected loss of life, but it can also intensify the grief.
"We had quite a relationship," said Zimmer, who was on the same staff as Sparano for the last four of his 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. "His wife, Jeanette, I told her the other day, she reminds me a lot of my wife. She's the sweetest lady."
Zimmer's wife, Vikki, passed away in 2009. His father, Bill, died in 2015. So he's had unfortunate experience in straddling the fine line between proper mourning and pressing on. What's clear to the Vikings, at least, is that Sparano would pick the latter.
"If Tony knew we were having this talk about him, I could just hear him in his very endearing way what his opinion on this would be," Spielman said.
With darkened sunglasses he wore since a teenage accident with hot oil from a deep fryer while working at a restaurant, Sparano had an intimidating presence. A significant portion of the screaming audible during a typical Vikings practice came from Sparano, who as a fellow understudy of former Cowboys head coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Bill Parcells came from the same hard-nosed mold as Zimmer.
"He was a lot like me, probably the only person in the building who was grumpier than I was," Zimmer said. "But he really cared about his players. I've sat in with him in offensive line rooms a lot, and he had a way of poking the stick at the guys and then putting his arms around him."
Sparano's daughter was married in Texas just 2 weeks ago. He told Zimmer last month he felt his health was the best it'd been. Since Zimmer hired Sparano in 2016 to help instill a tougher mentality in the offensive linemen, the two early-to-arrive-and-late-to-leave coaches spoke often, and not just about football. As a former NFL head coach, Sparano served as a sounding board for Zimmer, as was their shared mentor, Parcells, the source of many of Sparano's customary colloquialisms.
"Instead of saying, `It's one or the other,'" Zimmer recalled, "he'd say, `It's a horse apiece.'"
That could've been applied, for example, to an assessment of a couple of potential draftees. Spielman fondly remembered Sparano's thoroughness, taking the time to study video of a tackle prospect when he played guard in a years-old game.
"I've never been around a coach who put in so much time and energy into everything he did," Spielman said.
There was a soft side to Sparano, too, when it came to his family, whether immediate or football. Zimmer smiled as he recounted playing in Spielman's charity golf tournament on the course where Sparano's house was, not far from the team's old headquarters.
"We get to whatever hole he was on, and he'd have a big cooler out there with beer and wine," Zimmer said. "He gave me a bottle of wine so we could play the rest of the course. That's Tony. He was a genuine person who cared an awful lot about a lot of people."