Fred Zamberletti, the Vikings’ first athletic trainer and lifelong storyteller of all things Purple, died Sunday morning. He was 86.
“Fred Zamberletti is the heart and soul of the Minnesota Vikings,” former Vikings running back Chuck Foreman said. “From Day 1, he’s been there taking care of everybody. A walking encyclopedia of Minnesota Vikings football. Just a good man who’ll be missed because there won’t be another Freddie. They should have a statue of him over at that new place.”
Born in Melcher, Iowa, on May 28, 1932, Zamberletti was the team’s head athletic trainer from its inception in 1961 until 1998, coordinator of medical services from 1999 to 2001 and senior consultant and team historian the rest of his life.
Zamberletti had been struggling with health issues in recent years. His family posted on his CaringBridge site last week that Zamberletti had been admitted to Methodist Hospital briefly because of back pain in mid-July.
A month later, he was readmitted when a magnetic resonance imaging exam detected an infection called osteomyelitis in the spinal bone and disc. He was being treated with strong antibiotics.
Friday, Juli Donovan, the youngest of Zamberletti’s four children behind Lisa, Lori and Tom, updated Zamberletti’s status, writing: “Our long-fought battle of Fred’s infection has been too trying for his body. We’ve now begun the journey to keep him comfortable and raise him up with love. … We know that he loved like no other and touched many people.”
Sunday morning, Juli wrote: “Today is a joyous and sad day. Fred passed away peacefully this morning joining his most beloved Lord Jesus Christ and the many loved ones that have passed before him.”
As news of Zamberletti’s condition spread last week, an entire organization, past and present, mourned. As Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse wrote Saturday morning, many well-wishers either stopped by to visit, as a teary-eyed Bud Grant did, or called, as Randy Moss did.
With eyes open and a rosary wrapped in his right hand, Zamberletti, his friends say, appeared to know that those close to him were there to say goodbye one final time.
“We lost a good one,” Vikings Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel said. “So many memories. One year, he took over conditioning to get us all in shape. I got to where I was so mad at him. Yelling at him. Then an hour later, we’re in the locker room playing cribbage and bocce ball like it’s no big deal. You knew deep down he always had your best interests at heart.”
Zamberletti was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Infantry. After graduating from the University of Iowa, he served as chief physical therapist at Hibbing General Hospital in 1959 and head athletic trainer at the University of Toledo in 1960. Grant joined the Vikings six years after Zamberletti and would often refer to his old friend as the “Cornerstone of the Vikings.”
“Zamby” attended every Vikings game — preseason, regular season, postseason and all-star — from Day 1 through Dec. 24, 2011. The streak ended at 1,049 games.
“I missed three out of four kids being born,” Zamberletti told the Star Tribune in 2009. “We didn’t have anybody else in those days. If you were sick, didn’t feel good, funerals or anything else, you still went to work, and you didn’t miss.”
Zamberletti, who never missed a day of work, was part of the ironman culture the team developed while going to four of the first 11 Super Bowls.
Even to this date, three of the NFL’s top six streaks for consecutive starts belong to Vikings players who played in each of those four Super Bowls. Jim Marshall is second at 270, 17 behind Brett Favre. Mick Tingelhoff is third at 240, while Alan Page is tied for sixth at 215.
“Freddie was a team man, but also a loyal player man,” said Vikings Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, who missed only one of 210 games in 15 seasons with the Vikings. “He was always optimistic. You’d try to get a day off, and Fred’s favorite quote was, ‘Hey, just go out there and see what you can do. Here’s a Band-Aid. Here’s an aspirin.’ That was always a lift because once you got out there and started to move around, you realized you didn’t need the day off.
“We played all those games mostly in part because of Fred. Just the encouragement and positiveness and enthusiasm. And he wouldn’t have asked you something he didn’t think you were capable of doing. So, there was a great deal of trust there with Fred.”
Foreman said Zamberletti stayed up all night one time making a contraption that enabled him to play with a separated sternum. It was a different era, and players rarely missed games.
“Fred put this wrap around my rib cage,” Foreman said. “It helped my sternum, but I told Freddie, ‘I can’t breathe.’ He said: ‘Don’t worry about breathing. Just run faster and get to the sideline so we can loosen it.’ Fred found ways to protect us on the field.”
Zamberletti, a member of the Minnesota Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame, was named Professional Athletic Trainer of the Year in 1986. Ten years later, the Vikings won NFL Athletic Training Staff of the Year.
“Fred Zamberletti was the epitome of a Minnesota Vikings icon,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said in statements released by the team. “He was more to players than just an athletic trainer; he was a friend, a mentor and a father figure who earned respect and admiration from everyone he encountered. If there was a category in the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame for athletic trainers, Fred would be at the top of the list for inductees.”
Meanwhile, owners Zygi and Mark Wilf said: “The Minnesota Vikings family is devastated by the loss of our dear friend Fred Zamberletti. Fred was a staple of the franchise since its founding.”
On Dec. 20, 1998, the Vikings did something rare in sports: They put a guy who had never played a down, coached a snap or owned the team into their Ring of Honor. Freddie’s hard work and oh so many great stories from Marshall to Moss and beyond would never be forgotten.
“You have your family and you have people you choose to add to your family,” McDaniel said. “Freddie was family to all of us.”