MINNEAPOLIS -- Surrounded by her children, Jeanette Sparano stood at the 40-yard line before kickoff at U.S. Bank Stadium for nearly an hour. One by one, the widow of Tony Sparano Sr., the Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach who died unexpectedly last month, was greeted by players and coaches who offered hugs and words of encouragement before the family served as honorary captains ahead of the Vikings-Jaguars preseason game.
Sparano died from arteriosclerotic heart disease at his home in Eden Prairie two days before rookies and quarterbacks reported to camp. He was 56 years old.
Jeanette proudly donned the name she was given by the man she fell in love with as a teenager, a cursive "Sparano" decal with glitter surrounding the letters stuck on the outside of her tote bag. Standing with her arms around daughter Ryan and son Tony Jr., an assistant offensive line coach for Jacksonville, the three joined the rest of the 66,637 in attendance to honor their father and husband with a moment of silence followed by a tribute video that played on the jumbotron.
The video opened with a scene of Sparano inside the locker room at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum giving a heartfelt speech to his players after the Raiders beat Kansas City in Nov. 2014. It was the first of three wins for the Raiders that season after Sparano was named interim head coach, tasked with guiding Oakland through murky waters during an 0-10 start.
Moments from Sparano's time as a coach in Minnesota, Miami and Oakland played on screen, encapsulating the love he had for his job and how proud he was of his players.
"He loved them like they were us," Tony Jr. said.
Testimony from Jeanette, Tony Jr., Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman painted the picture of a coach whose tireless work ethic was second to none; a man who prided himself on bringing out the best in his players.
"Let's get the details right! Pay attention to the details!" Sparano Sr. said to his players in Miami.
The Vikings will wear "TS" decals on the back of their helmets this season to honor Sparano's legacy. The 19-year NFL veteran coach spent two seasons in Minnesota working with the offensive line. Injuries ravaged his unit in back-to-back years but didn't hold the Vikings back from reaching the NFC Championship in 2017. The offensive line, which helped the run game go from 32nd to seventh in the NFL, played a major part in that.
"I like the fact that we took a bunch of guys and molded them into one," Sparano Sr. said in an interview that played on screen.
After the emotional ceremony, Jeanette linked arms with her children as they made their way onto the field. Walking on either side of the Sparano family was the Vikings offensive line, who stood in unison at midfield as the family called the coin toss.
These players were more than that for Sparano. They were an extension of his family.
His starting offensive linemen from the 2017 season -- Riley Reiff, Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Mike Remmers -- along with Rashod Hill served as pallbearers at his funeral. Berger, who played for Sparano in Dallas, Miami and Minnesota, was on hand Saturday to cap off the ceremony by sounding the gjallarhorn before kickoff.