Joe Avezzano, who won three Super Bowl rings as a Dallas Cowboys special teams coach and was known for his engaging personality, died Thursday in Italy. He was 68.
Avezzano reportedly was working out on a treadmill when he suffered a heart attack. He recently was hired as head coach of the Milano Seamen of the Italian Football League.
Avezzano was the Cowboys' special teams coach from 1990 through 2002. He was named the NFL's special teams coach of the year three times during that span but wasn't retained when Bill Parcells took over as coach in 2003.
Avezzano is survived by his wife, Diann, and his son, Tony.
"Joe Avezzano was a very special part of our Dallas Cowboys family and our organization's history. He was also a wonderful father, husband and friend," team owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. "No one enjoyed life more than Joe, and no one that I know had a greater appreciation for the people that he loved and the lives that he touched. We grieve with Diann and Tony and the thousands of fans who loved Coach Joe. He was an original. There was no one else like him."
He worked for Barry Switzer for four seasons with the Cowboys, including the franchise's last Super Bowl title season. When Switzer thinks of his old friend, football usually isn't the first thing that comes to mind; it's Avezzano strumming a guitar and belting out country songs.
"Joe would rather have been a country western music star or on-stage performer than a football coach if he had a choice," Switzer said. "Joe did a great job coaching, was highly ambitious and a hard worker, but Joe always thought he could sing. I got a kick out of that."
Switzer laughed as he recalled a party he hosted after a Cowboys game once that included Charley Pride and a couple of other country stars as guests. It didn't take long before the music started, with Avezzano right in the middle of the group.
"They were all over there pickin' and singin'," Switzer said. "That's what Joe loved to do -- pick and sing. That was his passion."
Bill Bates, who played for the Cowboys from 1983 to 1997 and was one of the NFL's pre-eminent special-teams players, was hit hard by Avezzano's death.
"We were lifelong friends from my days at the University of Tennesse. He coached there for a year so I knew him from my freshman year," Bates said. "Having him come to Dallas and be the special teams coach in the early '90s was a blessing to me. ...
"Those kinds of coaches that have the ability to motivate players and do it in a way when sometimes you need to have a coach in your face yelling at you and a few plays later you've got a coach that's hugging your neck. That's the difference between old-school coaching and the way Coach Avezzano coached. You knew Coach Avezzano wasn't just worried about his job, but also the life of people.
"Anytime you were around him, man, you always had a smile on your face. He was always bringing laughter, even in the tough times."
Current Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Avezzano's impact extended beyond the football field.
"Joe Avezzano was a great football coach, but, more than that, he was an outstanding human being," Garrett said in a statement released through the Cowboys. "The impact that he had on me and the hundreds of other players and coaches who had the good fortune to be around him was significant. There are not many days that go by where we are not sharing a legendary Joe Avezzano story or using a trademark Joe Avezzano expression.
"He was a wonderful friend. We loved him very much, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Diann, and his son, Tony."
Avezzano served as head coach of the Arena Football League's Dallas Desperados for two seasons after leaving the Cowboys before a three-season stint as the Oakland Raiders' special teams coach. He also was Oregon State's coach from 1980 to 1984.
Avezzano, an offensive lineman at Florida State who played one season for the AFL's Boston Patriots, remained a popular figure in Dallas-Fort Worth. He worked as a radio and TV analyst and owned Coach Joe's Hat Tricks, a bar and restaurant in suburban Lewisville.
Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com contributed to this report.