An emotional afternoon practice for the Sparano family began and ended with mother and son hugging, wiping away tears and talking about the husband and father they thought would share this moment at TCO Performance Center.
“We’re doing as well as we can because we’re really strong, really resilient, the way Dad and Mom raised us, the way this family is built,” said Tony Jr., Jacksonville’s 31-year-old assistant offensive line coach, after the Jaguars and Vikings held their first joint practice Wednesday.
Dad was Tony Sr., the 56-year-old Vikings offensive line coach who suffered a fatal heart attack July 22, two days before his third Vikings training camp would have begun. Son, dad, mom Jeanette and other family members, including the grandkids, were looking forward to this as a joyous week a mere 26 days ago.
“I miss him terribly every single day,” Tony Jr. said. “I thought about him a lot [Wednesday]. There are so many sayings, things he did and said to us, that it’s tough to pinpoint all the things of his going through my head today.”
After a brief hug with Mom before practice, Tony Jr. went to work. He cuts a similar silhouette and has similar facial features, minus the father’s signature sunglasses.
Tony Jr. coaches the interior linemen under line coach Pat Flaherty. And he’s making a new name for the family. In his first season with the Jags last year, Tony Jr. helped on a unit that posted a franchise record for fewest sacks (24) while leading the league in rushing (141.4 yards per game).
As Tony Jr. worked, Jeanette sat nearby watching him closely with a sideline pass she got from the Vikings. At one point, coach Mike Zimmer’s secretary, Mary Redmond, sat with her arm around Jeanette as they watched together.
When practice ended, Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff had an extended conversation with Tony Jr. on the field. He wasn’t the only Viking to approach with kind words about Tony Sr.
“My dad loved this team, loved these players, loved being a Viking,” Tony Jr. said. “It’s really cool to see how much he meant to those guys and how much he cared about them.”
After a year of coaching in the now-defunct UFL, Tony Jr. spent two years as an offensive quality control coach for the Dolphins. Dad was the head coach.
“He was the most genuine, caring and compassionate person I ever met,” Tony Jr. said. “Everyone sees the exterior and the football coach and what he was like in Miami with the sunglasses. But he cared about people. He cared about impacting people. He wanted to help people better themselves.”
The post-practice hug between mom and son was longer and more emotional. As they talked, Tom Coughlin, Jaguars vice president of football operations, came up and hugged Jeanette. Then Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone did the same.
“It’s a difficult situation for both [teams],” Marrone said. “To be able to come up here and … pay my respects, and for Tony [Jr.] to come back up here, I think it’s very emotional.”
Like Tony Sr. was, Marrone is an old offensive line coach at heart.
“I had the utmost respect for him,” Marrone said. “I knew him when I was at Northeastern and he was at Boston University. I’ve always watched the way his players play and always appreciated and tried to aspire to have my players play the same way, or play for me like they play for him.”
For Tony Jr., the lessons obviously went deeper than football.
“Everything about who I am that I’m proud of comes from my dad,” Tony Jr. said. “He was the best. He was an incredible role model for me in so many ways in life. I loved him so much.”
Tony Jr. paused for a second.
“In fact,” he said, “if I could be half the man he was, I’ll live a really, really great life.”