Time never slows down, not even following a tragedy. Just a short three days after the sudden death of Tony Sparano, Mike Zimmer and the Vikings staff must do the impossible and turn their focus to training camp. But for at least today, the focus stayed on their late colleague and friend.
As Zimmer addressed the media, the voice of the usually stoic Zimmer cracked immediately. He cleared his throat and maintained composure throughout the press conference, but for perhaps the first time as Vikings coach, Zimmer wore his emotions on his sleeve.
“I went through this about eight years ago when I lost my wife,” Zimmer said. “We’re hoping this is the last time.
“Tony was a very good friend of mine,” he continued. “An excellent football coach, a mentor for me to go in and talk to him about…not just football, talk about life, talk about kids and things like that.”
Outside of his gruff exterior, few fans knew much about Sparano behind the scenes. Zimmer described him as “always grumpy,” but also a caring man and good sounding board.
“He really cared about his players,” Zimmer said. “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.
“The conversations that we’ve had meant a lot, and they helped me grow a lot.”
General manager Rick Spielman similarly had to compose himself at times during his press conference. He emphasized the interpersonal relationships that Sparano worked to establish with his players throughout his coaching career.
“I know in this business that we’re judged on wins and losses and the coaches are judged on wins and losses,” Spielman said. “But I think the one thing that gets overlooked is how these coaches have such a big influence on their players and the relationships that they build, not only on the field…but off the field as well.”
Beyond describing Sparano as a coach and as a man, Spielman and Zimmer both provided insight into Sparano’s personality. Zimmer shared Sparano’s affinity for odd sayings and talking about his grandkids. He also told a story of providing drinks and conversations to attendees of a golf event Zimmer hosted.
“When you have people like that and you work with people like that,” Spielman said. “You’re pretty fortunate in this business when you can come across people like Tony Sparano.”