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Zulgad: Vikings’ focus will be on more than football and that’s OK

By Judd Zulgad

Covering professional sports, one of the first things you realize is the lengths athletes will go to in order to block out the real world and thus remain focused on the sole purpose of trying to win games.

There are occasions where this becomes impossible for individuals — a parent gets sick, a family issue at home — but collectively teams often talk about staying focused. Nowhere is this more true than in the National Football League, where showing vulnerability is seen as the ultimate weakness and being macho remains far too important.

This is why the Vikings are faced with such a difficult situation as training camp gets set to open this week. From the very top of the organization on down, the Vikings suffered a devastating loss on Sunday when assistant coach Tony Sparano passed away at his home in Eden Prairie.

This is especially true for players and, in particular, the offensive linemen. Sparano coached that group and thus established a close bond with them. A position coach can often end up being like a parent for players.

Head coach Mike Zimmer might provide some instruction, but he’s far too busy to spend extensive time dealing with one position group. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who replaced Pat Shurmur after last season, will be more hands on than Zimmer but ultimately it was Sparano who was charged with molding these players and providing tough love.

And now, at the age of 56, he is gone. Just like that. The cause of death was listed as arteriosclerotic heart disease by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner.

The expectations for these Vikings remain extremely high. They are coming off a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game but nonetheless will go down as one of the most successful years in franchise history. Moves were made to improve the roster, including the signing of free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract that is fully guaranteed.

Players, and the coaching staff, are likely to focus on the fact they are dedicating the season to Sparano, but it would be naïve to believe that this will wipe out the pain and shock of Sparano’s passing. Instead of practicing on Friday, the day veteran players are scheduled to report to camp in Eagan, the Vikings will attend a memorial service for Sparano.

Players aren’t robots and Sparano’s death isn’t something they can be expected to get past in a day, a week or a month. The Vikings’ starting line figures to be Riley Reiff at left tackle, Nick Easton at left guard, Pat Elflein at center, Mike Remmers at right guard and Rashod Hill at right tackle.

The reason for pointing this out is that for as rough and gruff as these guys might seem, none of them has even reached the age of 30. Reiff and Remmers are both 29, Easton and Hill are 26 and Elflein is 24.

Dealing with someone close to you dying is difficult at any age, but it’s even more difficult to grasp at an age when you often still feel infallible. It’s even more difficult when that person is taken from you suddenly. It’s also probably fair to surmise that many players on the Vikings have parents who right around Sparano’s age so thinking about their mortality is only natural.

Add all of this together and understand that as training camp opens keeping the sole focus on football and tuning out everything else is going to be next to impossible and almost certainly wouldn’t be healthy.

Players will look to Zimmer for guidance — and Zimmer has been through tragedy before having lost his wife in October 2009 — but it would be unfair to think he’s going to be able to magically make it all better. Zimmer and Sparano were longtime friends and it’s likely the 62-year-old Zimmer also needs time to grieve.

So what’s my point in writing this? It’s a fair question but in this case there is no grand point. There’s only the need to point out that things aren’t going to be back to normal for the Vikings for quite a while and for some it will be longer than for others.

No matter what the coaching staff and players might say, or no matter how tough they appear to be, it’s only fair to keep that in mind.

The post Zulgad: Vikings’ focus will be on more than football and that’s OK appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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