EAGAN, Minn. — On the first day of Vikings Verizon Training Camp — a day usually filled with excitement for an upcoming season — players and coaches found that taking the field helped them grapple with a different emotion.
Tony Sparano, who spent the past two seasons as the Vikings offensive line coach, unexpectedly passed away Sunday morning at the age of 56.
Both Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer offered their personal memories of Sparano on an emotional day for the franchise.
Spielman, Zimmer and the team will attend Sparano's memorial service on Friday. They said that while now is a time to grieve, there will eventually be a time when the full focus needs to turn to the 2018 season.
Zimmer said returning to the daily grind of green grass and playbooks served as a slight coping mechanism for his team.
"It's good to get back out here on the field," an emotional Zimmer said. "You know, it takes a little bit of sting away of losing a great friend, a great coach, a good man."
Rookies, quarterbacks and other select players reported for camp Tuesday and were at practice Wednesday afternoon.
Veterans are slated to arrive Friday and will likely attend memorial services for Sparano that same day before practicing for the first time on Saturday.
"We're obviously going to talk about it," Zimmer said. "I've gotten a couple of texts from a couple of the players, and basically I've told them that we're going to get through this together.
"That's how we do things here, and we're going to continue to fight and try to get better," Zimmer added. "That's what he'd want us to do. I think we'll handle it that way."
Spielman referenced the family atmosphere in the organization as something he and others will lean on.
"We've had our fair share of adversities that we've had to get through, but I think with the atmosphere and the culture that we have in this building — and how close-knit we are as a group, as a coaching staff, as a front office staff, as a business side, our ownership — that we're here to support each other," Spielman said.
Vikings guard Cedrick Lang spent the 2017 season on Minnesota's practice squad. The former University of Texas-El Paso lineman reflected on Wednesday about Sparano's impact on him on and off the field.
"He taught me everything," Lang said. "Tony is definitely one of the reasons I'm here and definitely developed me as a player.
"It went a long way," Lang added. "We had a great relationship with Tony … he was like a father figure to us."
But, as Zimmer and Lang also mentioned, Sparano would be the one rallying the team in an instance like this.
With the season less than seven weeks away, the Vikings are going to put in the kind of work that Sparano embraced with a passion.
"We definitely have to keep putting the work in," Lang said. "He's definitely going to be missed out here, but we definitely have to keep putting the work in. That's what Tony would want."
Added Zimmer: "If Tony was here he would tell us, 'You got to get there and get to work'. That was Tony. Tony was going to be a guy that was never going to take a day off. He's going to come in here and grind, and that's what he would tell us to do. We've got to go grind. We've got to get better."