Vikings rookies report for training camp Tuesday under a cloud of sorrow that renders football matters rather insignificant.
The entire organization is dealing with shock and grief over the sudden death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano at age 56. Sparano died at home Sunday morning after reportedly experiencing chest pains three days earlier.
The outpouring of emotion on social media from players inside the Vikings locker room and also around the league speaks to Sparano’s imprint on his profession. He was respected as a coach, beloved as a man and admired for his devotion to his family.
Vikings coaches returned to work Monday from pre-camp vacation, and one can only imagine how difficult that must have been. Coaching football isn’t a 9-to-5 occupation. Coaches spend more time with each other than their own families during the season. By all accounts, Sparano was the ultimate grinder who never shortchanged his players.
This will be a painful time for the organization. Especially for the offensive linemen and coach Mike Zimmer, who unfortunately has endured more than his share of tragedy, including the death of his wife when he coached in Cincinnati.
The Vikings arrive at camp with Super Bowl-or-bust expectations, but this is not the time for that discussion. Right now, Zimmer is dealing with human emotion and the impact on his players and assistant coaches.
There’s no road map to guide someone’s ability to grieve the loss of friend while also confronting the need to press forward.
The entire team is scheduled to report later this week. It will be time for reflection and mourning and undoubtedly retelling many stories of Sparano’s life and coaching career.
As cruel as it might be, the business of football will commence, too. Zimmer must figure out how to fill Sparano’s void, as impossible as that seems right now. The organization will open the gates to TCO Performance Center as fans flock to the first training camp at the team’s new home.
The drumbeat of preparing for a new season continues in spite of their sadness. The Vikings no doubt will rally around each other while supporting Sparano’s family.
Admiration for Sparano has been widespread and serves as a testament to his coaching style. The best coaches manage to straddle the line between being firm but fair while connecting on a personal level. That was Sparano.
He had a gruff exterior, and he didn’t let the slightest mistake slide, but he made his players better. And he supported them. Their relationship was built on mutual respect.
That doesn’t always exist, that kind of respect. Some coaches rant and cuss but miss the mark in terms of establishing rapport. They don’t gain trust that allows player-coach relationships to thrive in a high-stress environment.
Look at the beautiful tributes to Sparano over the past 48 hours. Not just from offensive linemen. And not just from inside the Vikings. From all the players and coaches around the league who knew him and worked with him and wanted to share their personal connection.
That is the definition of respect and trust.
Sparano achieved success in the NFL as a head coach and position coach. That shows that he was both a leader and a teacher. Not every coach masters even one of those attributes.
One of the most poignant tributes came from former Vikings lineman Joe Berger, who played for Sparano in Dallas, Miami and Minnesota. Berger told the Star Tribune that he’s on vacation and had planned to stop by Vikings camp to shake Sparano’s hand and thank him for being his coach.
The list of players who feel that same way is probably too long to count. That’s quite a legacy for any person. Those memories no doubt will provide comfort as the Vikings reconvene for a new season without their beloved line coach.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org