Vikings icon Zamberletti never forgets Iowa roots

Longtime Minnesota trainer saw every team game from 1961 through late 2011, a streak lasting 1,049 games

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April 1, 2014 | 1:30 am

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Fred Zamberletti embodies Minnesota Nice, but he’s Iowa to the core.

Zamberletti, 80, has earned countless awards from the state of Minnesota for his 52 years of work with the Vikings. Zamberletti was the team’s trainer from 1961-1998 and now serves as a team consultant. He attended every game in franchise history until last December when health prevented him from reaching consecutive game No. 1,050.

Vikings legendary coach Bud Grant called him “Cornerstone of the Vikings.” The team honored him with “Fred Zamberletti Day” in 1998 and was named as an Honorable Ambassador of the State of Minnesota.

Those honors humble Zamberletti, but one honor stands alone. In 2011, the University of Iowa recognized Zamberletti with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Zamberletti fumbled through his words when trying to explain what the honor meant to him.

“I’m dyslexic,” Zamberletti said. “I came from a school that didn’t prepare you for college — no foreign languages, no labs, 15 kids in my graduating class. I get down at Iowa and I’m competing with these kids were their dads are doctors, they were able to sit in summer school. To me, that means the most.

“Tom Brokaw is in that group and there’s a lot of doctors I knew. They should have Tier A, Tier B, Tier C, and I should be at Tier E.”

In Vikings history, Zamberletti is top tier as a charter member of the team’s Ring of Honor. He grew up in Melcher and attended Iowa in the 1950s. He worked as a trainer with the school’s successful football and basketball programs. His primary football focus was with the freshmen, who were coached by Jerry Hilgenberg. Hilgenberg’s brother, Wally, later started at linebacker for the Vikings in four Super Bowls.

“He was a very important part of our football staff,” Jerry Hilgenberg said. “Not only did he do his job as a top-notch trainer but part of his job was being a parent to them. Fred just had a knack of saying the right thing at the right time. He was a pleasure to work with.”

Zamberletti started his Vikings career in 1961 at the inaugural training camp in Bemidji. He survived first coach Norm Van Brocklin, whom Zamberletti described as smart and intelligent but also a “micromanager.”

“He was tough to work for,” Zamberletti said.

Zamberletti nearly left the club in 1967 when the Vikings hired Grant to replace Van Brocklin. Grant and Zamberletti met for the first time in a car outside a hospital.

“I said, ‘If you know more about my job than I do, you do it or hire somebody else to do it,’” Zamberletti recalled. “(Grant) said, ‘That’s not going to be a problem.’

“(Grant) stayed his distance and he treated you so well that you wanted to do a good job for him. I don’t know anybody that could have coached that long in the league and had success doing it the way he did. He had his priorities and boundaries. He didn’t waver from them.

“You’d call his wife on Saturday and say ‘Is Bud home?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s hunting.’ ‘Would you tell them that I called?’ ‘Yes I will.’ She didn’t make excuses for him, saying he was over at the office working. No. It was straight answers.”

Grant, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, led the Vikings to four Super Bowls from 1969-76. He won 11 divisional titles in 18 seasons with the Vikings.

Of the Vikings’ four NFC championships, one stands alone for Zamberletti — the team’s 27-10 dismantling at Dallas in 1973. He called it “the biggest win the Vikings ever had.”

“They had all the big names, Too Tall (Jones), all over the place,” Zamberletti said. “They were just outstanding.

“What they do in games like that, the media will put their cameras in the team’s locker room that they think is going to win. There were no cameras in our locker room; they all were in the Cowboys locker room. We beat them that day. They couldn’t believe it.”

Zamberletti was a friend to players through the generations, ranging from his days at Iowa to the current group at Winter Park. It’s just part of his personality.

“I always considered my job especially in my later years to pick a guy up when he’s down,” Zamberletti said. “The ones who are too up, knock them down a little bit and make sure his hat size fits. Talk to them very directly. When they’re down, they need a friend. They don’t need me to tell them what’s wrong. Pick them up.”

Zamberletti has developed good relationships with today’s stars, some of whom he said are misunderstood. He dropped papers one day in the parking lot, and receiver Percy Harvin stopped his car in the middle of the road to help him pick them up. Zamberletti also said he enjoyed conversations with former Vikings receiver Randy Moss.

“He’s a lot smarter than he allows people to think he is,” Zamberletti said. “The funny thing that you say that because his SAT scores were pretty high. The reason I got along with him was I wouldn’t patronize him.”

Zamberletti also was very close to the former Hawkeyes. He laughed when talking about he and former Iowa and Vikings coach Jerry Burns scalping tickets before Iowa football games. He’s known to get on a few of the Iowa guys for losses to the Gophers and remains very interested in the Iowa City happenings.

“He’s just a great guy,” Vikings tight end Allen Reisner said. “He’s always positive about everything. If I see him walking in the hallways, he always asks me if I’d been down to Iowa City and if I’d seen the new facility and what’s going on down there.”

“There’s not many people as nice as Fred Zamberletti,” said Hilgenberg, who remains friends with Zamberletti more than 50 years after their Iowa days together. “Above all that, too, he was an outstanding trainer. He did an excellent job.”

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MORE FROM ZAMBERLETTI

Zamberletti considers himself lucky to land the Vikings' training job from his humble beginnings. He was a trainer at the University of Toledo before moving to Minnesota. He tried to back out and return, but his replacement already signed his contract.

"It was a franchise that looked like there would be a lot of opportunities" he said. "It’s exciting to come up here. I loved Toledo."

He found it tough to accept the Distinguished Alumni Award at Iowa.

"I should have never got that honor," he said. "I was going to try to back out of it and the people up here were like, 'No, you’re not. You’re going if we have to drive you down.' Thousands should have got that award before me. It was much appreciated. I came from that coal mining town down there, poor school systems,  I’m dyslexic, the folks didn’t have money to send me to college. I’m just lucky all around.

"I worked hard, but I wasn’t showing the results of these other people. It was tough. I was lucky to get this job here. I was lucky."

Zamberletti has three daughters and a son. He also is an Army veteran.

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On working for Van Brocklin:

"We had big squad, a lot of contact. Up in Bemidji, four or five hours to get up there, you didn’t see your families, one busload of guys coming, one busload leaving. Van Brocklin was a very smart guy, intelligent but he was tough to work for. It took me about three years before I got his confidence."

On meeting Bud Grant:

"When Bud Grant got here, (general manager) Jim Finks was in the hospital. He was seriously ill and was going to die (he lived until 1994). He called me to the hospital, and Bud just got hired. That night they made the trade for Alan Page, or made it possible for him to come here. Bud said, 'Are you in a hurry to leave?' I said no. He said, 'Let’s go out in the car and talk.

"I said, 'I’m not going to badmouth the people who were here.' He said, 'I don’t expect you to.'"

On working for Grant in the Vikings' glory days of the 1970s:

"We were really close. The players just rallied around each other. There were hardship and we would rally. They were good people."

On trying to help former Vikings defensive back Karl Kassulke after he became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident:

"We had fundraisers. Kassulke went to Drake. He was a character, he was wild. I went to see him in the hospital shortly after he was paralyzed and he had a cast on his leg, a broken arm. He was just all messed up. He said, ‘Am I going to play football this year?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ 'Am I going to play football next year?' 'Nope.' 'Am I going to play football ever again?' 'Nope.' He said, 'Do you think I could coach?' I said, 'I don’t know that.'"

On giving former Iowa tight end and current Vikings tight end Allen Reisner a ribbing after losing to the Minnesota Gophers in 2010:

"I said, 'What the hell happened to you guys against Minnesota? Here you’ve got all these guys getting drafted in the NFL, and you come up here and let them beat you.' He said, 'Well, it was cold.' I said, 'Cold? What are you guys talking about? What are doing up here?'"

On how sports medicine and training methods have changed over the years:

"I was very fortunate to go to Iowa’s school of physical therapy. That gave me a great background in athletic training. There’s better training, surgeries (today). In those days a guy would have to play with those knees or he didn’t play."

His thoughts on Randy Moss:

"Randy Moss was a tremendous athlete. He always treated me with dignity and respect. We were at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and his mother came up thanking us for taking him. I said, 'Mrs. Moss, he’s gone out of his way to be nice to me.'

"The first day he came out here the spring of the year, first practice, they had him back there catching punts. He was dropping everything that was coming in sight of him. I knew what he was doing. He came in the next day and I said, 'Hey, you want to borrow these hands?' 'Whatcha mean?' 'Borrow these hands. I saw you out there with those punts. I know what you were doing.' He didn’t come here to return punts. He was very gifted."

On taking T-shirts and scalping tickets at Iowa to make a few dollars:

"(Coach Jerry) Burnsie was worse than anybody. Of course, we were of the age where we grew up in the Depression. We’d scalp tickets, especially if it was the homecoming game. Against Michigan, we’d buy those $4 tickets, sell them for $8 and thought we were rich.

"All of us Iowa guys, we’d all steal T-shirts. We’re all depression guys."

On former Iowa trainer and current travel coordinator John Streif:

"He’s Iowa. All these players that come through here like him. He’s a class guy. He’s a wonderful person."

 

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