Jets coach reflects on 'scary' loss of his friend Tony Sparano

Tony Sparano, the Jets' offensive coordinator in 2012, died of heart disease at age 56 in July, just as training camps were opening across the league. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets field house was empty and quiet, except for Todd Bowles talking about his late friend Tony Sparano. He started telling a funny story about their time together in Miami, and suddenly there was laughter in the cavernous building. Bowles, when he removes his game face, has the kind of laugh that makes you laugh. It comes on fast and gets loud quickly.

So, there was that time with the Dolphins ...

Bowles was the assistant head coach and Sparano the head coach from 2008 to 2011. One day, Sparano poked his head into a defensive meeting to break bad news to Bowles. There was an accident in the team parking lot; Bowles' car had been struck by another vehicle. Bowles raced outside to check it out and, sure enough, there was damage to his Mercedes-Benz.

"I was freaking out," Bowles told ESPN Wednesday. "I was like, 'How could I get hit inside the facility?'"

He was staring at the car that day, trying to figure out what happened. Soon, he was joined by Sparano in the parking lot. As they surveyed the situation, the Dolphins' coach fessed up: It was him. He backed his Mercedes-Benz into Bowles' car.

"It was funny because he laughed and I laughed," said Bowles, doing it again. "He has this dry humor. It was very funny."

Suddenly, the Jets coach fell silent. The laughter was gone. He paused a moment to clear his throat.

"He was great," he said quietly. "You don't replace somebody like that."

Sparano died unexpectedly on July 22, a few days before NFL training camps opened across the country. He was only 56, the victim of heart disease. He spent his last two seasons as the offensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings, who visit MetLife Stadium on Sunday to take on the Jets. To honor Sparano, the Jets' offensive coordinator in 2012, the Vikings wear "TS" decals on the back of their helmets.

Bowles was looking forward to facing his old friend. They worked together for seven years, three with the Dallas Cowboys (2005-07) and four with the Dolphins. Then, on July 22, he received a call from Dolphins special-teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who broke the news. Bowles was crushed.

"It hit me hard, right then and there," Bowles said.

"He's what you call a man's man and a coach's coach," he continued. "He always did things the right way. He was never flashy or anything like that. He was hard on you, but he was fair. He had a great sense of humor. He has an outstanding family who we're close to, to this day."

Bowles and Sparano were hired in Dallas by Bill Parcells, where he assembled a staff of six future head coaches -- Bowles, Sparano, Sean Payton, Anthony Lynn, Todd Haley and Mike Zimmer, the Vikings' coach. Bowles and Sparano had long talks every day before sunrise.

"We were both early, early birds," he said. "I'd go running at 5 a.m. and he'd go walking and jogging at 5 a.m. We always crossed paths."

When Sparano landed the head coach job in Miami, he made Bowles' his right-hand man. It was an instrumental period in Bowles' career because he was in a position of leadership as the assistant head coach. When the Dolphins fired Sparano with three games remaining in the 2011 season, Bowles was elevated to interim head coach -- and there's no doubt that experience, albeit brief, enhanced his own résumé.

"He was teaching me things on a daily basis," Bowles said of Sparano. "It was invaluable. I mean, I can't say enough about him."

"He taught me how to run and manage a team, dealing with certain guys and having certain core values, as Bill taught us," he continued. "[Sparano] had his own core values and own beliefs and how the team should be run -- as far as the toughness guys and the smart guys and the try-hard guys -- and blending it all together and seeing the big picture. He taught me a lot about that."

Months before Sparano's death, Bowles, 54, made a significant change in his own lifestyle, dropping approximately 50 pounds. He did it with diet and exercise, saying, "I want to be around for a long time." Just recently his close friend and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers left the team for 10 days with an undisclosed health issue that was described by Bowles as "serious."

Bowles was visibly shaken when he made the announcement about Rodgers.

Since then, Rodgers, 49, now medically cleared, has returned to the team. On Wednesday, he was on the practice field.

Two reality checks for Bowles:

"We're pretty close in age," he said of Sparano, "and it kind of scares you as a coach. You try to appreciate every day you can. It hits home. I tried to work out. Tony worked out a lot. It's scary, it's really scary.

"I don't know how healthy or unhealthy you have to be, I guess, when your time comes. You can't take anything for granted right now."