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'That Was Tony': Spielman, Zimmer Reflect on Memories of Sparano

EAGAN, Minn. – Tony Sparano was grumpy, but "that was just Tony."

When Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer addressed the media on the first day of Vikings Verizon Training Camp, very little was said about football.

Instead, Wednesday was a time to remember Sparano, who passed away unexpectedly Sunday morning.

When talking about the offensive line coach and – more importantly – his friend, Zimmer did crack a smile when recalling Sparano's demeanor.

"He was always grumpy, a lot like me," Zimmer said. "He was probably the only person in the building grumpier than I was.

"But he really cared about his players," Zimmer continued, his voice cracking with emotion. "I've sat in with him in the offensive line rooms a lot. He had a way of poking a stick at the guys and then putting his arm around them."

Spielman spoke of the "outside perception of people" and emphasized that it doesn't always match who a person really is. Family members, friends and those who worked closely with Sparano, however, knew who he truly was.

Sparano would sometimes send Spielman an early morning text message – not about practice that day or an upcoming game but for something off the field.

"He'd come into my office, and if there was something on his mind, even not related to football, that was bothering him," Spielman said, stopping a brief second to compose himself, "I would describe him as a very caring and sensitive man. Which, people didn't [often] see that side of him."

Added Spielman: "The conversations that we've had meant a lot, and they helped me grow a lot."

Zimmer and Spielman each shared memories of Sparano, who joined the Vikings coaching staff in 2016.

The head coach recalled a time that Sparano met Zimmer and others at the hole of a golf course he lived on to offer conversations and a cooler of beverages during a tournament that Spielman hosts annually. Or the way that he loved talking about his kids and grandkids.

"And that's Tony," Zimmer said. "He was a genuine person who cared an awful lot about an awful lot of people."

Zimmer chuckled about the various sayings – such as "a horse apiece" – that Sparano would use with his players, on the practice field or in the meeting room, many of which he gleaned from Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Parcells, whom both Sparano and Zimmer worked under in Dallas.

"He had more sayings, probably, than any coach I've ever been around. Every day, he had a different saying. That was fun," said Zimmer.

Spielman talked about Sparano's drive to help the Vikings be the absolute best team they could be. He reflected on the NFL Draft and the free agency period, highlighting the way that Sparano dedicated himself to studying film on players and contributing as much as he could to the process.

"I've never been around a coach who put so much time and energy into everything he did," Spielman said. "And that was Tony."

Spielman and Zimmer alike will tell you that they lost a friend much too early. But the legacy Sparano left behind as a coach will continue.

Zimmer said that Sparano was "exactly what I was looking for" in an offensive line coach who would help develop the toughness and physical mentality in the Vikings position group.

One of Sparano's many attributes was a confidence in the philosophy he preached.

Spielman said that Sparano "truly believed in" the makeup and type of offensive linemen Minnesota has focused on adding to the roster.

"I used to kid him all the time – it's like watching a bunch of Tony Sparanos running around the building," Spielman quipped. "I mean, they're all in that mode. I do think the group that we have, they'll want to rally. I know they'll want to make him proud as we move forward."

Sparano was with the Vikings for just two seasons, but Spielman credited him with being a critical part of the team's success.

"Not only as a football coach but what he stood for as a man and the values that he gave to us," said Spielman, who later added: "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."

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