Vikings QB coach inspired by Sparano’s faith, priorities

| August 20, 2018 | 0 Comments

Kevin Stefanski, Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks coach, gives instruction to quarterback Kyle Sloter during practice Aug. 14 at the team’s new training facility in Eagan. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski remembers going to Winter Park, the team’s old practice facility in Eden Prairie, to find offensive line coach Tony Sparano praying with his Bible in his office in the early morning before practice.

“I was with Tony for only a couple years, but it was such an impactful couple years,” said Stefanski, a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace in Edina. Sparano died July 22 at his home in Eden Prairie.

Stefanski attended Sparano’s funeral Mass at St. Bartholomew in Wayzata July 27 and was moved again by the late coach’s Catholic faith. Father Mike Van Sloun, the Vikings’ Catholic chaplain and pastor of St. Bartholomew, spoke of Sparano’s faith in the homily, and Sparano’s wife, Jeanette, reiterated the faith and principles her late husband lived by during the eulogy.

“Everyone [in football] says, ‘faith, family, football’, but do you really live it? Tony was an example of somebody that lived it,” said Stefanski, 36, who joined the Vikings coaching staff in 2006 and is the longest-tenured coach on the team.

Stefanski will remember Sparano and his family in prayer as the new NFL season gets underway, which began with training camp July 25-Aug. 16. Sparano, 56, died from arteriosclerotic heart disease, which the Hennepin County Medical Examiner announced July 24.

Stefanski first heard the news of his colleague’s death when he received a call while bicycling with his sons to Mass, and it remained on his heart throughout that liturgy.

“I’m lucky to have known the man, and I’m lucky to have seen him put his faith in practice, and I hope that I’m able to learn something from that,” Stefanski said.

Stefanski grew up in a faith-centered Catholic family in Pennsylvania. Now, he and his wife, Michelle, strive to help their three children — Juliet, Gabe and Will — grow in their own faith. All three attend Catholic schools in Edina.

“I was fortunate enough to live in a family where we went to church every Sunday, and our faith was something that we talked about, so the lesson was set early for me,” Stefanski said. “It’s something that my wife and I really try to do with our three kids, … have our faith be a big part of who we are and what we do and set the foundation for them.”

For the Stefanskis, it means Sunday Mass, grace at meals and prayers at bedtime.

On the football field, Stefanski focuses on developing the Vikings quarterbacks’ techniques and leadership skills. That ranges from footwork to guidance on commanding attention in the huddle.

“As a coach, you’re a teacher, No. 1, both in the classroom and on the field,” Stefanski said. “I try to do my best to encourage those guys to lead in a way, in a fashion that is consistent with who they are.”

Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski works with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins

Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski works with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins during drills at training camp Aug. 14. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

He has a mostly new class to work with this year with the arrivals of rookie Peter Pujals, Trevor Siemian via trade and Kirk Cousins, who signed a then-record $84 million free-agent contract. A fourth quarterback is backup Klye Sloter, who was with the team last year. Stefanski has kept the magnitude of bringing in Cousins, and the expectations that have accompanied his arrival, in perspective.

“I think that hype is an exterior thing, and once you’re in the walls of this place, it kind of gets forgotten,” Stefanski said. “I’m coaching him as hard as I’m coaching second string and third string and fourth string quarterbacks.”

Stefanski said he has enjoyed having Cousins on board, and applauds his leadership style and the way he’s picked up the team’s playbook so quickly.

“Kirk is a pro’s pro,” Stefanski said. “He’s really everything you want in a quarterback. He’s a leader and, not to mention, he’s a very physically gifted player.”

Stefanski also admires that Cousins is overtly Christian and the son of a pastor.

“Faith is definitely something I know is a big part of his life and he lives it, which is pretty impressive,” Stefanski said.

Experiencing the faith of others, particularly Catholics, has been a significant part of Stefanski’s time with the Vikings in recent years. Former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also attended Our Lady of Grace prior to taking a head coaching position with the New York Giants Jan. 22. Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu attends Our Lady of Grace as well.

“It’s a strong faith community,” Stefanski said, of the parish.

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