Something didn’t quite add up for Greg Camarillo the first time he met Jeanette Sparano back in 2008.

Camarillo was a backup receiver on a Miami Dolphins team that had finished 1-15 the year before. Jeanette’s husband, Tony, was the first-year head coach handpicked by new front office boss Bill Parcells to replace Cam Cameron.

“Jeanette is the nicest, sweetest person in the world,” Camarillo said. “And this super nice lady is married to this dude who is yelling and screaming all the time? I’m thinking, ‘How does this work?’ Then you come to know Tony as a person. A genuine, authentic, caring family man who ended up bringing that mentality into the locker room.”

Camarillo, who also played for the Vikings from 2010-11, was one of many in the NFL fraternity shocked by the news that Sparano, the Vikings’ offensive line coach, died Sunday morning of an apparent heart attack at his home in Eden Prairie. He was 56.

“[Former Dolphins running back] Patrick Cobbs sent me a text saying, ‘Coach Sparano died,’ and I just couldn’t believe it,” Camarillo said. “First, he’s so young. And I heard he had chest pains and went to the hospital [on Thursday]. Football is a stressful job, but he saw the signs and took precaution by going to the hospital. Man, it’s just crushing.”

Cobbs and Camarillo shared some memories of the guy Camarillo calls “the toughest, most demanding and most real coach” I ever had. The famous “Wildcat” game at New England in 2008 obviously came up.

“We’re 0-2, coming off a 1-15 season, and we have a guy who has never been an NFL head coach, and we’re going to New England,” Camarillo said. “Tony could have lost the team right there. But he changed our season and started a trend in the NFL that lasted a couple years.”

Legend has it that Sparano solicited ideas from outside the box on the flight home from a 31-10 loss to Arizona. The idea of putting the running back at quarterback in the shotgun formation and the quarterback at receiver was hatched.

“David Lee, our quarterbacks coach, had done the Wildcat at Arkansas,” Camarillo said. “Dan Henning, our offensive coordinator, was on board. So coach Sparano said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

The Dolphins were averaging 60.5 yards rushing per game and were installing a rushing attack completely foreign to the NFL at the time. Practices weren’t exactly crisp.

“They brought in film from how Arkansas ran it like five years before that,” Camarillo said. “No one really knew what to expect. It was either going to be totally awesome or it was going to be a total disaster.”

The Dolphins won 38-13. Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns, passed for another one and totally befuddled Bill Belichick.

“It was the only time I ever saw Belichick and New England’s defense look totally lost and frustrated,” Camarillo said. “No matter what they tried, Tony was one step ahead. It was the total opposite of what the Patriots are so used to. I’ve never enjoyed a day in the NFL more than that one.”

The Dolphins went 11-5 and won the AFC East. In the past 15 seasons, that’s the only time New England didn’t win the division.

Sparano went 29-32 with the Dolphins and 3-9 as the Raiders’ interim coach in 2014.

“He was a good head coach,” Camarillo said. “He brought the same consistent passion to work every single day.”

Camarillo went undrafted in 2005 and hadn’t started a game in his career when Sparano arrived in Miami. He wasn’t expecting that to change when this tough, loud newcomer threw a tender arm around him and quietly explained why he would be starting on opening day.

“It was a questionable decision to start me,” Camarillo said. “But coach Sparano pulled me aside and really boosted my confidence by showing faith in me. He was a special guy who brought out the best in you.”

 

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com