(KMSP) - Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano died early Sunday morning at his home in Eden Prairie.
Sparano joined the Vikings in 2016 as offensive line coach and had previously worked with Coach Mike Zimmer. He was 56 years old.
According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Sparano died of arteriosclerotic heart disease and the manner of death is natural.
Before joining the Vikings, Sparano was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2011.
According to the Minnesota Vikings, Sparano was the starting center for the University of New Haven in his home state of Connecticut. Sparano is a member of the New Haven Football Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife and three children, along with four grand-children.
“Tony was like a Godfather to those guys in the offensive line. He not only coached, mentored tutored the o-line. He touched lives… in other positions,” said Vikings sideline reporter Greg Coleman. “They’ll get another coach with another name and a different persona but no one can replace a Tony Sparano.”
The news of Sparano’s passing comes only days before players start reporting to camp. Former Viking Matt Birk never played for Sparano but says the next several days will be hard on the team.
“He was a football man through and through and he would like nothing more than if his guys went out there and played a little bit harder in honor of him,” said Birk.
The Vikings released a statement Sunday:
With deep regret the Minnesota Vikings announce that Offensive Line Coach Tony Sparano unexpectedly passed away early this morning.
“Our hearts go out to Jeanette and the entire Sparano family as we all mourn the loss of Tony. 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.” - Vikings Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf
Sparano began his NFL coaching career in 1999 with stints as a head coach with the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. Tony served as the Vikings offensive line coach since 2016. Tony played collegiately at the University of New Haven where he was a four-year letterman. Sparano was named New Haven’s head coach in 1994 and held the position for five seasons.
Tony is survived by his wife, Jeanette, his two sons; Tony and Andrew, his daughter, Ryan Leigh, and four grandchildren. Sparano was born October 7, 1961. He was 56 years old.
The Sparano family requests privacy at this time. The Vikings will provide further updates when appropriate.
Some Vikings players, including Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, shared their thoughts on social media Sunday.
You will truly be missed by your loved ones, the guys you coached and the ones you’ve impacted over the years coach Sparano. Calm, cool and always wearing your shades no matter how dark the room was. Thank you for caring about the us as individuals and not just athletes 🙏🏾.— Teddy Bridgewater (@teddyb_h2o) July 22, 2018
General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer also giving statements after the tragic death Sunday.
"I am at a loss for words with Tony's sudden passing," Spielman said. "Tony loved the game of football and his players. More importantly, he was a strong man of faith who treasured his family. My heart is with the Sparanos today. As an organization we will support them in whatever ways we can."
"I love Tony Sparano," said Zimmer. "He was a great teacher, a grinder of a worker and had a toughness and fighting spirit that showed in our linemen. 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."