A rosary was wrapped in Fred Zamberletti’s right hand early on Friday morning at Methodist Hospital. He has the thick, strong hands that served him well as the head trainer from the Vikings inception in 1961 through 2003, although there now seemed to be swelling that would reflect the infections that have been slowly taking Fred’s life.
“There were two things that Dad listened to on the radio every day: sports talk and the recitation of the rosary,’’ said Juli, the youngest of Fred’s four children, following Lisa, Lori and Tom.
The grip on the rosary has not been the extent of Zamberletti’s preparations for his Going Home (in the religious sense). He had the family contact six priests that he knows from various parishes, encouraging them to visit.
“There was one day when I’m sure that he took Communion three times,” said Juli, with a smile.
On Friday, she alternately laughed while telling of her father’s peculiarities, and then fought tears while telling of visits and messages Zamby had received as news of his grave condition spread among former Vikings and an untold number of friends.
“One of the last days when Dad still was able to communicate, Bob Lurtsema was here,” Juli said. “Lurts had him laughing so hard that I thought that was going to do him in right then.”
Bud Grant visited a couple of days ago and there was no laughter to share. Zamby couldn’t communicate and Bud was very tearful.
“Randy Moss called last night,” Juli said. “I asked him to put a message on voice mail, so we can play it for Dad.”
Moss’ message on Thursday assured Zamby that he had a special place in Randy’s heart, and that he appreciated many things, including Zamby teaching him the “ancient game of Bocce,” and then said:
“When you walk to the Golden Gates of Heaven, you have done it, you have served your purpose, buddy.”
Zamberletti, 86, had some intense back pain in mid-July. He started with three days at Fairview Southdale, went to the Masonic Home for rehab, came home for a day, and then was admitted to Methodist Hospital on Aug. 11.
Five days later, an infection was detected in his spinal bone, another infection joined the attack on his body, and a variety of strong antibiotics was not able to defeat that attack.
On Friday morning, Fred reacted to conversation and other sounds with wide eyes. I had a chance to tell him that having Zamby amble over for conversation had been the highlight of any visit to Winter Park or to training camp in Mankato.
Zamby’s friend Chad Ostlund and I had visited him at his spacious apartment in a senior living complex in January. I needed a few tales for a couple of articles on the upcoming Super Bowl, and wound up with 90 minutes’ worth.
Yet, I didn’t know this about the small-town kid from Melcher, Iowa: His Italian soul has made Zamby a lifelong lover of opera and musicals.
How much so?
Zamberletti was being moved recently into a wheelchair to be transported down the hall for a test. And out of nowhere, he started into a rendition of “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” from Camelot.
Juli also showed me a note in which her dad revealed that if he could come back in another life, it would be as an opera singer.
There were a number of photos on a counter of Zamberletti’s hospital room. One was taken in the 1930s and was of an older man. He was a neighbor in Melcher with 12 kids, and they always set extra places for dinner for Fred and his sister.
It was the Depression and the Zamberlettis were extra poor. To still be showing gratitude to that family neighbor eight decades later says something about Fred.
So does Zamby’s reaction from a couple of weeks ago when he looked around this large hospital room and reiterated his constant fear of financial ruin by saying:
“If I ever get out of here, I’m going to be broke.”
Grant is another child of the Depression known to have an appreciation for a buck (see: Bud’s Garage Sales).
So, is Fred as … er, frugal as Bud?
“They used to compete to see who could get the best deal,” daughter Lori said. “Dad had a contact with Old Dutch and he would get cardboard boxes of free potato chips. He didn’t even like potato chips all that well. He just liked showing Bud that he could get the chips for free.”
Juli did have one request as I left on Friday morning: “Make it a long piece in the newspaper, if you can. Dad would be upset if we paid for a long obit.”
And then the daughter that her dad called “Dolly” laughed through the occasional tears.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.