MINNEAPOLIS — During a final respite from the NFL grind 5,000 miles away from his new life in Minnesota, John DeFilippo gazed out at the splendor of the Amalfi Coast atop one of the highest peaks in Positano, Italy.
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The Vikings offensive coordinator savored this time, which would be among his last football-free moments for months. It was easy to get lost staring at the beautiful azure sea and colorful buildings stacked atop each other among the vibrant villages that lined the southern Italian coast.
His phone buzzed, taking him from his moment of reverie back to the present. It was Tony Sparano, the Vikings offensive line coach who sent a text message letting DeFilippo know he put several practice scripts on his office desk to review once he was back from vacation.
DeFilippo smiled and sent back a response, complete with a photo that resembled a postcard.
“I guarantee my view is better than yours.”
The two coaches corresponded throughout the summer, exchanging ideas they had for the Vikings’ offense and training camp. It wasn’t always about football. They bonded over their background as East Coast Italians who grew up in similar ways. Sparano, a devoted father of three, shared his excitement about his daughter’s July wedding. DeFilippo, an avid golfer and dog lover, enjoyed delivering a snapshot into his life away from football.
DeFilippo felt refreshed. Those eight days in Italy were exactly what he needed before tackling the biggest challenge of his career. He couldn’t wait to hit the ground running once he was back stateside, eager to work with one of his mentors for the first time since they served on the Raiders staff six years ago.
But he never got that chance.
Losing a great friend
On the morning of July 22, DeFilippo had a voicemail from head coach Mike Zimmer. DeFilippo was running late for an appointment and didn’t have time to listen before getting in his Jeep and driving off.
Minutes later, his world came to a hard stop.
His wife Kari called him hysterically crying. Over the phone, she delivered the news: Sparano was gone. His 56-year-old friend and colleague died in his kitchen that morning from arteriosclerotic heart disease. His wife, Jeanette, found him unconscious as they were about to leave for church.
The details about the next few minutes, hours and days blur together. DeFilippo remembers turning the car around and speeding home. All he could think about was Sparano’s widow and children.
On his way, he phoned Zimmer, the gravity of what was waiting for him on his voicemail sinking in. Zimmer relayed the information again. Two coaches connected through the same person (Zimmer coached with Sparano in Dallas from 2003 to 2006) were left to sort through this unimaginable grief.
Hearing the news all over hit home twice. DeFilippo couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it.
No one could have prepared for a loss of this magnitude. There’s no playbook, no script for how to handle such an immense tragedy. He not only lost his closest confidant on the coaching staff, DeFilippo lost a great friend.
In a season with the magnifying glass over DeFilippo more than at any point of his career, the 12-year NFL coach will be forced to go through the year without his right-hand man.
How he gets through this will be among his greatest struggles, carrying the lessons he learned from Sparano each step of the way.
Sparano was an important resource for the Vikings when they hired DeFilippo, being the only coach on staff who had a prior working relationship with the new offensive coordinator. He could speak to “Flip’s” reputation for developing quarterbacks, having seen it firsthand in Oakland in 2014.
In his second stint as the Raiders QB coach, DeFilippo was tasked with developing then-rookie Derek Carr. Sparano, who took over interim head-coaching duties four games into the season, wanted Carr to be glued to DeFilippo’s side.
“Flip is not afraid to spend the time,” Sparano said in June. “He’ll stay in there endless hours, and that’s a good thing if you’re finding the solutions, if you’re finding answers out.
“He brought some things to Derek that I think a young quarterback can hang his hat on, things Derek gravitated to. Certainly, he was the voice to Derek.”
The two seasons (2013-14) Sparano and DeFilippo spent in Oakland shaped their work dynamic in Minnesota. To DeFilippo, the relationship between the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach benefits most from open-ended dialogue and collaborative efforts.
“Whenever I had an issue I went and shut Tony’s door and said ‘Tony, how do I handle this? What do you think of this?’” DeFilippo said.
Sixteen years Sparano’s junior, there’s no one DeFilippo felt closer to on staff.
“I think Flip knows me enough to trust me in the things that I’m doing there,” Sparano said in June. “You can get line coaches in this league that are afraid to change and afraid to do something different and they’re stuck in their ways one way or the other. I’ve sat in every seat, and Flip knows that.”
An advocate for ‘Flip’
The easiest thing DeFilippo could have done this offseason was to stay in Philadelphia.
“And a lot of times — 99 percent of the time — the easiest thing to do in the NFL is not always the right thing to do,” DeFilippo said.
He has become one of the hottest names in coaching circles across the NFL. Heralded for his innovative offensive mind and proven track record of developing young quarterbacks, from Carr to Carson Wentz, DeFilippo’s future as a head coach is considered inevitable.
In January, DeFilippo interviewed for head coaching jobs in Chicago and Arizona. Two days after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, the Vikings reached out and wanted him as their offensive coordinator.
Had he stayed in Philadelphia to continue coaching quarterbacks (and with the prospect that he might have taken over offensive coordinator duties last minute after Frank Reich left for Indianapolis), the beat would have drummed on for DeFilippo. He was in the perfect situation to pick up where things left off in search of another title.
But something kept driving him to chase another challenge, one he has yet to master.
“I think, from Flip’s standpoint, he wanted to get back into that “I want to be the playcaller” role and have that responsibility of 45 guys before you take on, potentially down the road, 90 of them this time of year,” Sparano said in June.
When DeFilippo was hired by Cleveland for his first offensive coordinator job, he leaned heavily on Sparano in preparing for the interview. Sparano, who was the coach of the Dolphins from 2008 to 2011, had been part of the hiring process before. His path happened in reverse, having been a head coach before he was a coordinator.
“He was an unbelievable resource for me because at the end of the day, there are very few people out there that you know have your best interest in mind,” DeFilippo said. “And he never made me feel like I was unprepared.”
His time in Cleveland calling plays for a 3-13 team was marred by ups and downs. He always thinks about three specific plays he wished he called differently.
“One was not being aggressive enough,” DeFilippo recalled. “One was being a little too aggressive. And the other one was going back where we were on the field and the team we were playing that had a ton of speed. Kind of dipping back into the well to run a play a second time that we got 9 yards on it early in the game.
“You tend to be overcritical of yourself,” he said. “I think that’s what drives you. You’re never going to be perfect, but you strive for that every single day. We’re going to die chasing it. We’re going to die chasing perfection.”
That mindset has caused DeFilippo to burn the candle at both ends early in his time in Minnesota. He lives (and might even claim he thrives) off an average of four hours of sleep a night in-season and survives on copious amount of caffeine. Need proof? Lined against the front of his office are stacks of Diet Coke cases. An entire fridge reserved for diet Red Bull is tucked underneath his desk.
Sparano understood the steady obsession. Having that drive afforded him a 19-year career in the NFL.
He also understood the importance of work-life balance, which he often preached to DeFilippo even if Sparano didn’t always heed his own advice.
“I think Tony was such a steady guy. I think that’s how we’re going to approach this thing — to be steady every day and go out and do the best we can.”
“We’ve had a couple talks where I’ve just said to him, ‘Hey, get the heck out of there and go home and rest. Go home, rest, see your wife, walk the dogs, do whatever it is you guys do,’ but at the same time I know that he’s a stickler for the details and being right,” Sparano said in June about DeFilippo. “You just have to pace yourself because it’s a long grind.
“When you’re taking on something different — and I don’t want to underplay coaching quarterback, obviously it’s critical — but you’re dealing with three guys as opposed to 45 guys and handle the plan every day, and the script, and the game planning and then calling the game and all that stuff, you just got to pace yourself a little bit.”
Driven to fulfill the dream he has had since he was 10 years old, DeFilippo won’t cater to the idea of Minnesota being his last stop before jumping into the head coaching ranks. He repeatedly defers to his sole focus being on the job he has, wanting to be the best offensive coordinator in the NFL.
His challenge is no small task, armed with an $84 million quarterback in Kirk Cousins and a team with Super Bowl aspirations. But his journey in Minnesota is more than just preparing for his next step. It’s about growing from the things that went wrong his first time he was a playcaller and building something stable, sustainable and that he can be proud of.
“I think that’s critical,” Sparano said. “He was critical on himself about his first time around in Cleveland on the things he thought he did well, and the things he thought he could improve on. If you can look yourself in the mirror like that as a young coach and understand some of those things, I think that you have a bright future ahead of you.”
Sparano’s influence is everywhere
A month after Sparano’s death, DeFilippo isn’t displaying his usual energetic demeanor. Today he’s drained, mentally and physically, wearing a worn look on his face.
He wasn’t allowed the necessary moments to grieve through this real-life nightmare. Sparano, he said, would have wanted him and the rest of the Vikings coaches to continue getting ready for the season. It’s the way these coaches are wired, seeking some semblance of normalcy amid an arduous routine with hellish hours and demands.
But it’s never easy.
The challenges are among the few constants for coaches in this ever-transient lifestyle. DeFilippo’s short list includes an 0-10 start in Oakland in 2014, followed by Johnny Manziel’s self-destruction that sparked the end of his NFL career in Cleveland a year later. The Eagles lost their franchise quarterback to a torn ACL in Week 14 last season. DeFilippo had to get Foles ready to win a Super Bowl.
Like he preaches to his quarterbacks, DeFilippo aims to be prepared for the worst and shocked when it doesn’t happen. But that tactic and the others he has used to get through football hardship don’t apply here. The way he’s navigating these challenges is the only way he knows how.
“I’m just fortunate that I’m a pretty mentally strong guy,” DeFilippo says, his voice growing quiet and trailing off. “Just take it one day at a time. It’s not easy. This job’s hard enough.”
Sparano’s gruff grumble no longer resounds on the practice field, nor his tough love demeanor, as Zimmer remembered, of “poking a stick at the guys and then putting his arms around them” on display in position meetings. Yet there’s not a day that goes by when his name isn’t uttered in the offensive staff room.
DeFilippo leans on Clancy Barone and Andrew Janocko, who were named co-offensive line coaches. They pick up where Sparano left off by building upon the continuity he formed with his guys over the past two years.
What DeFilippo carries with him from Sparano are more than just memories. His influence is stamped all over this offense. During the initial install, the Vikings took one of the main protections used in Philadelphia and altered it in a way to best suit their personnel.
“It was Tony’s idea,” DeFilippo said. “A great idea.”
His death motivates this team to honor him with a successful season, but the Vikings know the best tribute to Sparano is to play up to his standards. A man who brought his “A-plus game every single day” didn’t get there by swaying from who he was.
A man whose relentless work ethic, passionate demeanor, guidance and friendship is missed every single day.
“I think Tony was such a steady guy,” DeFilippo said. “I think that’s how we’re going to approach this thing — to be steady every day and go out and do the best we can.”
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