As camp opens, Vikings look to move forward following Tony Sparano's death

EAGAN, Minn. -- Fighting back tears on the first day of training camp, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman remembered former offensive line coach Tony Sparano for his vision and values, the passion he poured into developing his players and an unmatched work ethic to give his all until there was nothing left in the tank.

Three days after Sparano died from arteriosclerotic heart disease at the age of 56, the outpouring of support hasn't slowed. People from all corners of the NFL -- players, coaches, executives -- have voiced their regard for the veteran coach directly to those inside the Vikings organization and with heartfelt messages on social media. As recently as Wednesday morning, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn called Spielman to express his regret about Sparano's passing.

"It makes you," Spielman said, pausing to collect his emotions, "appreciate the time we have and the time we have together because you don't know when your time is called. I think it just puts life into perspective and what is actually important."

The Vikings commenced the first year of training camp at TCO Performance Center with rookies, quarterbacks and a handful of veteran players (who reported early) coming off injury. Wednesday morning's walk-through was a welcome respite from the raw emotion these players and coaches are facing; an attempt to find normalcy again among immense sadness.

"It takes a little bit of the sting away of losing a great friend, great coach, good man," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Unfortunately I've been through this about eight years ago when I lost my wife. We're hoping that this is the last time."

With the rest of the roster slated to report Friday, the Vikings will attend Sparano's funeral as a team, having canceled practice so the group could pay their respects and give final goodbyes.

Extra counseling will be provided to players who need it, Spielman said, and the franchise will rely on its tight-knit bond to get through a week where the focus is on grieving, remembering Sparano's legacy and lifting each other up after his tragic death.

"The most important thing is when you're a family ... the family is what helps you get through it," he said.

Sparano's leaguewide impact spanned nine teams over the course of a 19-year career. His no-nonsense, brutally honest approach made way to a caring, sensitive soul who believed deeply in his faith, loved his wife, three children and two grandchildren and sought to bring out the best in those around him.

"He was a lot like me," Zimmer said. "He was probably the only grumpier person in the building than I was, but he really cared about his players. I've sat in with him in the offensive line rooms a lot. He had a way of poking the stick at the guys and then putting his arm around them."

Zimmer's friendship with Sparano began in Dallas where the two served under Bill Parcells from 2003 to 2006. After Minnesota chose not to renew former O-line coach Jeff Davidson's contract in 2015, Zimmer knew who he wanted for the job.

"He was exactly what I was looking for in an offensive line coach when I hired him because he had that toughness and the mentality we were trying to develop with the offensive line," Zimmer said.

The nature of his sudden death leaves many wondering if there were warning signs that might have been missed. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that Sparano sought medical attention last Thursday after complaining of chest pains. After undergoing several tests, Sparano was released from the hospital on Friday.

"When we left for the break, he said this is the best health he felt like he's been in, he was walking all the time, he was enjoying himself," Zimmer said. "His daughter just got married a couple weeks ago in Dallas and obviously he was down there."

Wednesday's offensive line drills were led by assistant O-line coach Andrew Janocko and tight ends coach Clancy Barone. Eventually, Minnesota will be faced with the tough task of figuring out how it wants to address who will pick up where Sparano left off. Spielman and Zimmer declined to address how the team will go through that process, choosing to place the focus on helping the team get through the week, the initial stages of grief and supporting Sparano's loved ones.

"From our ownership and entire organization, I wanted to make sure that they know (Sparano's family) that they are our family and that we are there by their side and will support them any way (we) can," Spielman said. "And as difficult as it is, we have to move on and we will under the leadership of Coach Zimmer and getting this team ready for the season."