Just two days before rookies are to report to the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp, Tony Sparano, a longtime fixture in the NFL coaching ranks and the Vikings’ offensive line coach the last two seasons, died unexpectedly at age 56, the team announced Sunday afternoon.
“Our hearts go out to Jeanette [his wife] and the entire Sparano family as we all mourn the loss of Tony,” Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf said in a statement released by the team. “Tony was a passionate and driven individual who cared deeply about his family, and especially enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren. Tony’s presence within the Vikings organization will be deeply missed. We are only thinking of Tony’s family during this incredibly difficult time. We ask that the entire NFL and Vikings family keep the Sparanos in their thoughts.”
According to the Star-Tribune, emergency personnel were summoned shortly after 8 a.m. Central time Sunday, with audio indicating that a female was performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation at the Sparano home in Eden Prairie, Minn. Sparano, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported, had gone to a hospital complaining of chest pains Thursday and was released Friday after having tests. His wife, according to Mortensen, found him in the kitchen as they were about to leave for church.
“I love Tony Sparano. He was a great teacher, a grinder of a worker and had a toughness and fighting spirit that showed in our linemen,” Coach Mike Zimmer said in a statement. “He was a great husband, father and grandfather and a great friend to me. This is just sinking in for us, but Tony will be sorely missed by all.”
Sparano coached in various positions for nine teams over 19 NFL seasons. He was the Miami Dolphins’ head coach from 2008 to 2011, taking the Dolphins to the AFC East title in 2008. He was 32-41 as a head coach and served as Oakland’s interim head coach in 2014. In addition, he also worked for the Browns, Redskins, Jaguars, Cowboys, 49ers and New York Jets.
During his time with the Redskins in 2001, he helped develop offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who tweeted about Sparano on Sunday:
“I really can’t believe the news,” Vikings quarterback Kyle Sloter tweeted. “A great coach and even better person. My condolences go out to the Sparano family. I think I speak for everyone when I say this season is for you!”
“Sparano family, I am so sorry for your loss,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr tweeted. “Coach believed in me, trusted me and stuck with me as a rookie. He would check in on my family every [head coach and quarterback] meeting we would have! He was a great man! I love you coach!”
Sparano was easy to spot on the sidelines in his omnipresent sunglasses, the consequence of a hot-oil explosion that nearly took his eyesight 40 years ago when he was working at a fast-food restaurant.
“You can see there’s still a scar on my face,” Sparano told the Star Tribune in 2016. “I had a patch over my left eye for 22 days, a patch over my right eye for 14. The left eye never did get right. The cornea is burnt and sun-sensitive, light-sensitive.
“I hear people always say, ‘Why does he have these sunglasses on at a night game?’ Or, ‘Why is he wearing them inside?’ Hey, it’s that kind of bright light that causes my eyes to start running, tearing and crying.
“So that’s the story. Indoors or not, if the lights are on, the sunglasses are on.”
In addition to his wife, Sparano is survived by his sons, Tony and Andrew; his daughter, Ryan Leigh; and four grandchildren.
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