The first walkthrough of Vikings training camp Wednesday morning kicked off the 25th season of Mike Zimmer’s NFL coaching career with an exercise he has ostensibly been through more than a thousand times.
But as Zimmer stepped onto a news conference podium following the session, it was clear he needed the opportunity to take refuge in the routine.
“It’s good to get back out here on the field,” Zimmer said. Then, as his voice broke, the coach added, “You know, it takes a little bit of the sting away.”
The Vikings’ 2018 training camp, their first at their new headquarters in Eagan, began on a somber note as the team continued to mourn the loss of offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who died Sunday morning at his home in Eden Prairie.
As Vikings coaches worked with rookies, quarterbacks and injured players on the practice fields, the scoreboard in their 6,500-seat stadium in Eagan displayed a memorial to Sparano in the background. The 56-year-old coach — an early riser like Zimmer — ordinarily would have been one of the first faces Zimmer saw in the morning.
Instead, his absence hung in the air on an overcast morning, as Zimmer tried to pay homage to his friend by dispensing some of Sparano’s good-natured ribbing to the Vikings’ young linemen.
“He really cared about his players,” Zimmer said. “He had a way of poking the stick at the guys and then putting his arm around them.”
Sparano and Zimmer first worked together in Dallas from 2003 to ’06 under Bill Parcells. “Every part of him was Parcells,” Zimmer said. “Half the sayings [he had were Parcells’]. He’d come in and say, ‘The old man, he called me this morning — have you talked to the old man?’ Stuff like that.”
Zimmer brought in his old friend in to replace Jeff Davidson before the 2016 season, when Zimmer sought a coach who would bring an increased level of toughness to a unit that had struggled in previous years. As the group improved in 2017 following an injury-ravaged 2016 season, both Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman could see Sparano’s imprint.
“I used to kid him all the time — [that offensive line] is like watching a bunch of Tony Sparanos run around the building,” Spielman said. “They’re all in that mold. I do think, the group that we have, they will rally and want to make him proud as we move forward.”
Spielman also recalled the long talks he’d had with Sparano in his office, about football and their shared Catholic faith.
“It meant a lot, and it helped me grow a lot,” Spielman said as his voice quavered. “When you have people like that, and you work with people like that, you’re pretty fortunate in this business, when you can come across people like Tony Sparano.”
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office said Monday that Sparano’s death stemmed from arteriosclerotic heart disease. Zimmer said Wednesday that Sparano told him in June “this was the best health he felt like he’s been in.
“He was walking all the time. He was enjoying himself. His daughter just got married a couple weeks ago in Dallas, and obviously he was there for that. I’m not a doctor, so I won’t get into any of that.”
The Vikings canceled their Friday practice so the entire team can attend Sparano’s funeral. They plan to honor him publicly later in the season, Spielman said. “We’re taking it one step at a time with the family, and working directly with his wife [Jeanette] on everything,” Spielman said. “Just getting through this week is the most important thing.”
The Vikings also deferred questions about how they will replace Sparano to another day. Tight ends coach Clancy Barone, who directed the Broncos offensive line and/or tight ends from 2009 to ’16, worked primarily with the offensive linemen Wednesday morning, with assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko also on hand.
Eventually, the Vikings will return to the normal rhythms of football, confident that Sparano wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“If Tony knew we were having this kind of talk about him, I can just hear, in his very endearing way, what his opinion of all this would be,” Spielman said with a laugh.
The Vikings will have Les Pico and Don Patterson, from their player development staff, available to counsel players, and Spielman said the team always offers outside grief counselors to players who might need them.
As they returned to work, the Vikings were looking to find strength in community.
“I’ve gotten a couple texts from a couple of the players. Basically, I told them we’re going to get through this together,” Zimmer said. “That’s how we do things here. We’re going to continue to fight and try to get better. That’s what he’d want us to do.”