The Vikings’ locker room was not a hospitable place for sports writers in the 1980s, and it was closer to hostile for a few years during the Dennis Green regime.
There were plenty of arrests and bad losses during this time, and thus plenty of opportunities to offer a few crack-back blocks in print.
A large share was offered in good humor, including early in my time as a St. Paul columnist, when Ahmad Rashad was getting much favorable publicity both locally and nationally.
I was writing for the afternoon St. Paul Dispatch. And once when I called Frank Howard, the retired, legendary football coach from Clemson, and identified my affiliation, he bellowed: “The St. Paul DIS-patch … does that paper get out of the city limits, boy?’’
The proper answer was “just barely.’’
Anyway, when covering Vikings games, I had started to take note of Ahmad’s proclivity for catching passes near the sidelines and his aversion of going over the middle to do so.
One afternoon at Winter Park, Ahmad mentioned this to me, meaning he had noticed, which also meant I had to keep mentioning it periodically.
Rashad’s positive publicity reached its zenith in 1982, when he was the subject of a first-person diary (in conjunction with Frank Deford) that ran for several weeks in Sports Illustrated.
In the midst of this, Ahmad once again saw me at Winter Park after his reluctance to go over the middle had been mentioned in a recent Dispatch column.
“Ahmad, you’re a national hero in Sports Illustrated, the giant of sports print media in this country,’’ I said. “Let a poor guy hacking away anonymously at the St. Paul afternoon newspaper have his fun.’’
That turned out to be Rashad’s last season. He made the mistake of going over the middle in the Pontiac Silverdome, was drilled in the back by Detroit’s James Hunter, suffered a broken back and didn’t play again.
Once for sure, maybe twice, trainer Fred Zamberletti mentioned to me that Ahmad was worked up over my humorous asides, and Zamby did so with a laugh. I’m guessing he figured that Ahmad was a guy who could use a needle …. even if a sentence in the Dispatch was hardly a pin prick.
Zamberletti’s admiration for football players knew no bounds. He saw on a daily basis from a half-foot away the commitment, the toughness and the willingness to deal with agony required to play this brutal game at the highest level.
He was 28 when he was hired as the Vikings’ third employee in 1961. He modernized in training techniques,, but stayed old school in his ideas about what should be the comfort level in the trainer’s room.
Zamberletti stayed as a trainer through 2003, and then became the team historian. He had a cubicle at Winter Park, and was given an office – near Bud Grant’s – at the new, ornate office and training complex in Eagan.
Zamby only made it out there a couple of times before falling ill in mid-July. He was 86 when he died early on Sunday morning from an infection that had overtaken his body.
The first thing Zamberletti wanted to look at was the training room. Impressed though he was with the immense facility, Zamby also offered this review to a friend:
“Too many chairs. You don’t want players getting comfortable in the training room. You only want them in there when there’s a good reason.’’
Zamby only kept a few chairs in the training room at Winter Park. It was a place for treatment, not bull-shooting sessions for players. As another disincentive for loitering, Zamberletti often had Opera music as background noise.
That will make non-injured players scatter in a hurry.
Now, if those athletes wanted to sit down during a break, and play a fast game of cribbage, Zamberletti would do that, and maintain a winning record said to approach 90 percent.
You knew Zamby had a tremendous fondness for a player when he threw an “Old’’ in front of his name. I took it to be short for being anOld Soul when it came to football, a warrior with a good person inside.
When telling a Jim Marshall story, with Zamby it was always, “Then, Old Marshall ...'’
It was also “Old Randle,’’ as in John, and “Old Winston,’’ as in Roy, and “Old Blair,’’ as in Matt, and on and on.
Zamby knew all when it came to the Vikings, and saw most of what was being said or written about them in the media.
There was a lone occasion in the decades we were friendly that I received a call from Zamberletti on this issue. I had written something negative about receiver Anthony Carter – seeing what appeared to be indifference in his body language and turned that into making a case for a lack of effort.
I took Zamby's call at the office on morning and he said, “I have to tell you this: You’re wrong about Anthony Carter.''
I probably said, “Tell me why,’’ which wasn’t necessary, because Zamby had called to tell me why.
Zamberletti told me about the beating Carter took with his legs, with his hips, battered but unwilling to give into that – a committed player, a competitor to such a degree that Zamby said this:
“Old Carter is one of the greatest competitors I’ve been around, and I’ve been around those kind of guys since Day One.’’
And I said, “Zamby, if you say I was wrong on Anthony Carter, I was wrong, and I appreciate the heads-up so I won’t make the same mistake again.’’
Beyond the great humor and story telling, that will be a lasting memory of Fred Zamberletti:
He was the sports guy when he offered his insight on someone, you needed no further confirmation.