Vikings original head athletic trainer Fred Zamberletti was posthumously recognized Thursday in Canton, Ohio, through the Awards of Excellence program launched by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The program recognizes "significant contributors to the game."
The Vikings had all of that and more in Zamberletti, whose amazing run with the team began in the franchise's inaugural 1961 season and continued in multiple capacities until his death in September 2018. Zamberletti's accomplishments included working 1,049 consecutive Vikings games before he missed one on Dec. 24, 2011.
At the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in March, Zamberletti and four other head athletic trainers — George Anderson (Raiders, 1960-94), Otho Davis (Eagles, 1973-95), John Omohundro (Cardinals, 1971-2008) and Jerry Rhea (Falcons, 1969-94) — were named in the inaugural class of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society's Hall of Fame. Each man was recognized with an Award of Excellence.
The Vikings provided travel for members of Zamberletti's family to attend the ceremony.
Pro Football Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant, who began working with Zamberletti in 1967 and knew him before that, recorded a video message in which he said the following:
"I'm happy to honor Fred Zamberletti, trainer for the Minnesota Vikings for so many, many years and a personal good friend. In any organization, you hear about the coaches and managers, the owners, players, everybody else, but you never hear much about the trainer. They're an integral part of every organization, particularly in professional sports. They are the insight that the coach has to have to analyze the players, to get to know the players.
"Fred Zamberletti, integrity was No. 1. Anything that was said between he and I or the players never got in the press. His insight into the players and when they're ready to play — all players are different. He recognized that. We got along famously. If you go look at any successful organization, you can go all the way down the list, and you're going to find a trainer who helps make some of the most important decisions on a professional team."
Vikings Owner/President Mark Wilf credited Zamberletti's commitment to the organization and players.
"Fred's tireless work behind the scenes and care for players' wellbeing earned him the respect of every player who took the field for the Vikings," Wilf said. "No one embodied the work ethic and dedication to winning more than Fred did during his great career."
In honor of this deserved recognition for Zamberletti, Lindsey Young and I are republishing the story we wrote when Freddy passed away in 2018. He remains dearly missed by us and so many others in the organization.
The following text was initially published Sept. 28, 2018.
The tributes rolled in via Twitter and Instagram posts, blogs and Fred Zamberletti's favorite, anecdotes relayed through conversations.
The Vikings Ring of Honor member who served as the team's original athletic trainer from 1961-98, as coordinator of medical services from 1999-2001 and as senior consultant and historian since 2002 passed away on Sept. 2 at the age of 86.
Players, coaches and colleagues attended a Celebration of Life ceremony held in Zamberletti's honor at the Vikings Museum.
"Everybody's got a story about him. Usually it's a funny story. You get some serious stories, too," said Chuck Barta, Minnesota Lynx Head Athletic Trainer who worked at the Vikings from 1988-2006.
With that in mind, here are some of the stories about Fred Zamberletti as told to Lindsey Young and Craig Peters.
Reflections from 1998 Offensive Linemen
The Vikings opened the 2018 season by bringing back members of the historic 1998 squad. The timing of the reunion, which enabled many players to see each other for the first time in 20 years, coincidentally overlapped with the team honoring Zamberletti.
After a Chalk Talk panel discussion featuring 1998 offensive linemen, Vikings.com asked Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie, Chris Liwienski and Matt Birk to share a few memories. Here is the behind-the-scenes exchange:
Randall McDaniel: "My stance started because of Freddy."
Vikings.com: "How so?"
McDaniel: "Freddy did a lot for me. I mean, my second year in the league when I got my knee rolled up on, I would say this, the way he taped me and put that brace on, it forced me to get in that stupid, ugly stance I had the rest of my career because I could not get down. It was a used knee brace. I hadn't earned the right for me to have a knee brace molded for my body yet. That's what he told me: 'Young kids like you don't get knee braces.' "
Vikings.com: "Even first-round picks?"
McDaniel: "It didn't matter. 'Young kids like you don't get that kind of thing.' He had me put on someone else's DonJoy brace, and I got in my stance that game. When I went back in, I had to turn my foot out to get down there. If Fred hadn't of done that for me, I'd still be in a conventional stance, and who knows what would have happened?"
"Freddy was good. Freddy taught me how to play cribbage. Freddy took all of my money for three years before I figured it out. He taught you cribbage and he taught you how to play bocce ball."
Vikings.com: "Where you guys pretty good at bocce?"
Todd Steussie: "The thing with Freddy is there's basically undulations in that carpet, and he knew that carpet so darn well, it would be like he's playing The Masters on the 18th green. He knows that you need to put it 18 inches to the right of the hole and let it die the last 6 feet. For 20 years, he knew that green."
Chris Liwienski: "Yeah, he did. He knew the locker room at Winter Park, that's for sure."
Matt Birk: "I think of everything we talk about, Fred told me this once, he said, 'When you come to the locker room, you've got to make sure you enjoy coming to work,' and Fred made it fun to come to work. He was obviously great at what he did. It was serious a lot of the time, but you also need those times to blow off steam. [We spent] a lot of time in the back playing cribbage, laughing. We'd say, 'How about some fellowship?' And we'd go back and it was fun, it was light, but then at times it would get serious, too. Fred was a spiritual guy. He was an old-school guy. He would give you advice on your career, on your marriage, on raising kids. There were those times sitting in the back, playing cribbage. That's one of the main things I'll remember from Fred because that's special and appreciated. Playing football is a hard job, and the NFL is full of pressure. That was kind of Fred's wisdom. He knew guys needed that."
Steussie: "He'd stop and kind of appreciate that moment. He was that kind of guy, 'There's plenty of time to go get your haircut, stick around.' He was also the bridge for other generations. I never would have met [Bill] 'Boom Boom' Brown if it wasn't for Fred Zamberletti. I probably would have met Lurtsy (Bob Lurtsema) because Lurtsy was always around, but he was the common face, other than D-Ryan (Equipment Manager Dennis Ryan), I knew that coming to the Vikings and visiting, you're going to be able to know somebody and connect with somebody."
Liwienski: "He had stories about everybody. He'd tell you stories from day one on down. He was truly the team historian. He was always that one guy, that you just felt good in the locker room when you saw him. You knew he belonged, and you knew you belonged if you were with Freddy."
McDaniel: "If Freddy was talking to you and telling you stories, you knew you were in the right spot."
A Friend, Counselor and Confidant
Zamberletti's style and approach befriended everyone in the organization for decades. Players, coaches and staff knew that beyond an athletic trainer, Zamberletti could be counted on as a trusted friend, counselor and confidant.
Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant: "I had met Fred before I got here; he was from Iowa. One of the things before I even took the job, I didn't talk to Fred but [I asked], 'Who are the players, what is their physical condition, what are their ages, what's the longevity of some of these guys?' So I knew something about the team. But Fred, integrity was one of his main [qualities]. I mean, the players could confide in Fred and know that Fred was not going to give that information to me. I mean, they would be concerned about, they'd ask Fred, 'With this ankle injury, how long am I going to be out?' The doctors, they won't ever tell you. 'Well, when it gets better, you can play.' He could provide more of a guideline as to how long it's going to be, when you should or shouldn't play. A lot of times, it's a matter of, Fred would say, 'OK, you can play.'
"That's all it took. Because they had Fred's experience and they had confidence in his diagnosis, his treatment and his suggestion. Fred would put a lot of people on the field by his experience with injuries and also the psyche of the players. … You have to know that if Jim Marshall swallows a toothpick during the pregame meal, Jim Marshall's going to play – even though he had to have surgery to get the toothpick out of his neck, he's going to play. So you have to know the players. Fred provided that input, and we depended on him a lot. Part of what you do [as a coach] is make decisions – you have to decide if a player can play, how long he can play, how well he can play. Fred was a part of all that."
Linebacker Jeff Siemon: "They (Bud and Fred) were together so long that they learned the intricacies of one another, and the differences. And I think they both respected each other even though they were different, for sure. Bud was very quiet, and [it was] kind of hard to even get a smile out of him, where Fred was very animated and a great conversationalist. They both were very effective in what they did. Fred was a great trainer and probably even a better counselor. And Bud, of course, was a great coach. We were very fortunate to have both of them.
Equipment Manager Dennis Ryan: "Fred would visit with Bud every day. They'd have their discussions, and the players were all in the room with Fred. They could confide in Fred, and when Fred would go talk to Bud, you knew he wasn't going to cross anybody. Everybody on the staff knew you could go talk to Fred. I bounced more stuff off than I gave him. I credit him for me being there to begin with and me being there to this day. He gave me more sound advice than anybody in my life."
Running back Dave Osborn: "He was a great guy. He really cared about the players. That was the biggest thing. And anything you told Fred stayed with Fred. He never repeated anything to coaches. He had a good relationship with players."
Receiver Gene Washington: "When I think of Fred, I just think of how nice he was to me and how nice he was to all of the players, especially when you got injured. Of course, that was his job, but Fred was very special."
Punter Mitch Berger: "It was good because he'd help you through your injuries, and some of the toughest times you would have [would be] when you'd get hurt or things would happen, and the trainer's the guy who's gotta be there for you, and he's kind of a counselor and all that, as well."
Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren: "No matter who you are, no matter who you were, what your position was, what your economic situation was, where you came from, whether you were black or white or if you had gone to school or not gone to school, Fred had a unique ability of making everyone just feel like they were the most important person in the world for that moment.
"One thing that made him so very special is that he always asked me how my wife was doing, he would always ask me how my kids were doing; we very rarely talked about anything with work and anything with wins or losses. He really wanted to know how your family was doing. Some of my most memorable conversations with him would be, I love classical music and I love opera, and we would have these conversations as far as what was his favorite song by Pavarotti and what was mine, it was Andrea Bocelli, in the same league as Pavarotti, and Fred would go on and on about music. And you know his great ability to be able to tell stories.
"I remember asking him one day, was he going to write a book, and he said, 'Kind of the true measure of a man, especially a man who has been afforded access to certain personal items, is that they would take those stories to their grave.' And I just thought that it was really what made Fred Zamberletti special. He didn't have to tell you what he did or who he had met or what he had seen or what he had access to, because he has held those things in his heart. And he didn't do things for show."
Food and fellowship
Meals offered another opportunity for bonding, whether it was on road trips or in the cafeteria at Winter Park. In the later years, staff members loved speaking with Zamberletti during the lunch hour, sometimes setting aside pending work to enjoy the enlightenment that it seemed could only be provided by Zamberletti's years with the franchise.
Former Vikings Athletic Trainer Chuck Barta: "I remember a time in Chicago, we went out to eat to get deep-dish pizza someplace and we had our group that was going to go out to eat, and he was like, 'Nah, I'm not hungry. I'm not hungry. Just, where are you guys planning to go?' And it was like, 'We're planning to go to Gino's East,' or whatever it was, and in Fred fashion, by the time the pizza showed up, he was like right behind the waiter to sit down and help eat some of the pizza. But he would just, his timing was impeccable."
Deep-dish aficionados understand the amount of cooking time required and accept it as a trade-off, but it can be a challenge to be surrounded by the smells and sights while waiting for your order. Maybe Fred knew just how to avoid the lull, or maybe he just couldn't stay away from the fellowship opportunity.
Vikings Director of Food Service Geji McKinney-Banks: "Freddy used to carry this bag, this medium-sized duffel bag, and he carried it everywhere he went. I really think that was the food bag. He'd come in and he'd yell across the café, 'Ge-ji!,' and I'd look up. He'd say, 'I'm going shopping.' And he'd go shopping. He'd put, maybe a loaf of bread or a bunch of bananas, apples, oranges in the bag. He loved cashews, so he'd take the whole 3 pounds of cashews and dump it in something, so every time we'd see him coming and we'd see the cashews, I would tell one of my employees, 'Go get the cashews. Run. Fred's here,' and they would take off and grab the cashews and run to the back. Sometimes that's all of the cashews we had.
"He never wanted to waste food. Anything that he thought we were going to throw away, he wanted us to pack it up and he would take it and eat it or give it to somebody.
Banks recalled Fred's love for pasta or a "really nice piece of fish."
"He didn't want too much salt or pepper. If he thought it was too much, he'd say, 'Who made this?' I'd tell him, and he would say, 'Tell somebody to take that saltshaker out of that man's hand.'
"He would enjoy himself," she added. "I'm going to miss him."
McKinney-Banks visited Zamberletti during his final days. Fondly remembering how he sang to her, she returned the favor at his hospital bedside.
McKinney-Banks: "Fred liked to sing to me. He'd stop me and sing a hymn or something to me, and I'd only have five minutes to do something where I've got to stand there and listen to the whole thing. That's why when he was laying there and I went to visit him before he passed, that's why I sang a little bit — not that I knew 'Ave Maria' to its fullest, but I did a little bit, and he responded. That touched my heart because he always sang to me. I thought I'd give it back to him a little bit."
Faith and philosophy
Zamberletti's Christian faith shaped his philosophy. He invited others to share in those beliefs but also extended a welcoming love to anyone who didn't.
Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant: "He was a religious person, he had fine tastes. But he wasn't a preacher. He didn't preach to people, he didn't try to turn people into something they weren't. He went along, and whatever you were, Fred was your friend."
Gene Washington: "Fred was very much into his faith. He's Catholic, and I'm Catholic, and all the years that I played with the Vikings, there was a group of us who would go to mass on Sunday morning. And Fred, he always organized that. He made sure, on Saturday night he would let us know, 'Hey, I'll meet you in the lobby Sunday morning at 6:30.' And we would go to mass. He would always set up the mass schedule for us. So I know where the churches are – the Catholic church in Cleveland, I know where there's a Catholic church in Detroit, Green Bay and everywhere we played on the road. He was very much into his faith, and I'll always remember him for that."
Linebacker Jeff Siemon: "Fred was a great person. Not only a great trainer but even beyond that. He was kind of an armchair philosopher. I can't tell you how many conversations I had with him over my 11 years – hours and hours and hours, often when I was in [rehab for an injury]. But he was just the greatest conversationalist. A great man of faith, just an inspiring guy in every way and a wonderful friend."
Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller: "He was here at the very beginning. He knew the guys, Fred knew me and every other guy that came through here. There were no strangers, you know, guys that were even hard to remember. Fred knew all of those guys, and they all knew Fred, too.
"One good thing about Fred was he would always look out for you. He would tell you what you'd need to do or what was good for you, or what not to do. You could follow his advice. You didn't have to alter it or do anything different than that. The other good thing about Fred was he never went over the edge. He would never use drugs or any of that stuff. He would never do anything to compromise you, so he was a man of integrity, a great, great guy."
Vikings Personnel Consultant and former assistant coach Paul Wiggin: "Fred was a student of [Hall of Fame Head Coach] Paul Brown. He admired his approach to things, the class with which he did things, the organizational factors and all of the things that Fred believed in, so we would spend a lot of time when I first got here, 33 years ago, talking about Paul Brown. I think through Paul Brown, really, we became good friends."
Tight end Jim Kleinsasser: "I think you get some comfort level and you gain some trust with someone once you kind of separate the person, who they are, from what they do on the job. So you gain that trust, and I don't think a lot of guys could say that Freddy wasn't completely honest with them, you know? He was a straight-shooter, he took you aside, he gave you the truth on what was going on, what you needed to hear. And the funny thing about it, too, was he knew how to read people and how they needed to hear the truth … he knew how to deliver it to each person individually."
Former Vikings Athletic Trainer Chuck Barta: "It was always fascinating to me how these players came back, just flocked back. I don't know how they were with other teams and all the other athletic trainers, but they just flocked back. He spent a lot of time on the phone checking in. During the offseason, he'd have some players, but a lot of them were out working. They didn't have workouts like they do now, and he spent a lot of time on that phone checking in with people – seeing how they're doing, seeing how athletic training staffs are doing but [also with] players. How they're doing, see how their mom's doing – very, very thoughtful."
The knee brace implementation that led to McDaniel's signature stance was more incidental than intentional, but Zamberletti was an innovator from the early days, before teams committed such a high level of resources to sports medicine and sports science.
Vikings personnel consultant and former coach Paul Wiggin: "I think he set the bar for what a great trainer is. I think the whole modern world of athletics is indebted to him in a sense because he really … he had an instinct that made you, even though he was rough on you, he made you work hard and made you not want to be in rehab, but to be out on the field, that was his goal, but beyond that, he was a friend, and that's not easy. That's not at all easy."
Former Vikings Athletic Trainer Chuck Barta: "He had a very ingenious mind in regards to design. … That's where his mind was – he always thought outside the box as far as anything to do to help these players."
Barta explained that Zamberletti designed a pad to fit over players' shoulders if they were suffering from AC joint separations.
Receiver Gene Washington: "There were some changes going on in terms of how the game was played, how you take care of players and injuries, and all of that. And what was most impressive to me, that he was able to adapt and take on the new ways of taking care of players, and I think that was very important."
Zamberletti's own persistence was rewarded when he was hired by Minnesota in 1961. The Iowa native and veteran of the U.S. Infantry was a motivator of others through-and-through, helping players recover from injuries with a toughness that always was founded on love and respect. He worked as the athletic trainer for Minnesota's first five head coaches before transitioning to other roles.
Vikings Ring of Honor defensive end Jim Marshall set an NFL record with 282 consecutive regular-season games, including 270 starts with the Vikings from 1961-79. Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff started all 240 games from 1962-78, Hall of Famer defensive end Carl Eller played in 209 games (201 starts). Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page started 157 of the 160 he played in Purple and an additional 58 with Chicago.
Zamberletti would put players on the mend through intense workouts, and he'd often clear them to return to action only after they had run up and down stadium stairs while toting him on his back.
Defensive end Jim Marshall: "[Zamberletti's approach] strengthened us. You didn't want to be in the hot tub. You wanted to be on the field playing, and you didn't want to be in Fred's care because you knew he was going to work you harder than you'd ever work on the field. The one I hated most was when he would climb on my back and have me run the stadium stairs.
"I couldn't have played as long as I played without his encouragement and his insistence."
Tight end Jim Kleinsasser: "Fred would always tell the stories of Jim Marshall coming to the field in the back of an ambulance, he'd been in the hospital all week long, but he showed up on game day. I always marveled at the old guys, how tough they were and what they went through, how small their equipment was and just the toughness they showed. Hearing about that, we used to have pictures of them on the training room wall, we had like a mural, and Fred would point out stuff and tell you the exact moment, the whole story behind the picture. That was pretty cool stuff."
Running back Dave Osborn: "When I first came here as a rookie, Fred was the trainer, and I'll never forget – we were up at Bemidji for training camp, and one of the first days out I sprained my thumb quite bad. So I … taped it all up myself and was going back out to practice, and Fred looked at me and said, 'What's that tape on your thumb?' And I said, 'Well I sprained my thumb real bad, I had to tape it up for some support,' and he said, '[first Head Coach Norm] Van Brocklin won't like that. Take the tape off.' So I had to take the tape off. With Van Brocklin, you went with no tape.
"In 1969 I hurt my knee, I busted the cartilage and so forth, and I came back in about six weeks. But in order to get to play, over at Midway Stadium, Fred was like 250 pounds then, and he got my back, and I had to run up the steps and down the steps four times in the stadium before he'd clear me to play again. Nowadays, I don't think they'd do that."
Vikings Personnel Consultant and former assistant coach Paul Wiggin: "If you talk to Bud Grant and ask him to prioritize what he wants in a player, he wants talent, of course, but he wants durability, and what a great match for him to walk in from Canada and have a guy named Fred Zamberletti running that training room downstairs. I think it was a great match, and what's interesting, Fred used to talk about his relationship with Finks and with Bud and all of those early people. He had a great deal of admiration for Bud Grant, and Bud loved him, too. He absolutely loved Fred Zamberletti."
Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant: "The tough part is, if you can't practice, you don't feel like you're a part of the team. So Fred, when they're on the field, he wouldn't just let anyone stand around. So he kept you active, even though it might not have been rehab, it was psychologically, you were part of the team because you were out there. He kept you busy. You just weren't standing on the sideline. Fred had a way of keeping their spirits up."
Zamberletti was able to share stories of players from the Vikings early days. He'd place pictures of players who had bounced back above the training tables and explain their determination. It helped to know others had faced and overcome tough times.
Former Athletic Trainer Chuck Barta: "We had minimal tables … we had four tables in [the training room]. That was it. His theory on that whole thing was, 'If you have five tables, you have five players injured. If you have six tables, you have six people that get injured. I've got four tables – I've got four people injured.' Less people injured, you know? You see that, and it's kind of true. But the tables, above each table he had a different player there, and when players would have significant injures, they would play through different things.
"It was something which, the players who were playing when I was there, at the time that he was there, you're not putting them in danger, but they want to get back in play. And you'd find a way to help them get back out there and play. Whether they were wearing a cast, if it was wearing some type of device on the ankle or the knee to get them to play, but they wanted to get back out there. But you also needed a player who wanted to get back out there."
Receiver and special teams ace Chris Walsh can laugh now about an expensive cribbage lesson he received from Zamberletti while on the mend from a torn ligament in his thumb. Walsh had numerous takeaways from his time with Zamberletti.
Receiver Chris Walsh: "He connected with everybody and had this sort of, like your grandfather, kind of loving [demeanor], but he also had this part where he would jump on you if you needed it. When he would rehab guys, he was old-school and he worked the heck out of guys to the point where they were like, 'I'd rather practice than being doing this rehab.'
"When my back was spasmed up, he had two 300 pounders put knuckles on my back, and he was on top of their knuckles, trying to break the spasm out of my back. He was old-school, hardcore Italian old-school. It just totally worked."
Tight end Jim Kleinsasser: "He knew how to kick your butt in gear, get you motivated. He was such a good reader of people. I came in in '99, and I thought I was a pretty tough guy, but I had a shoulder injury in the first few weeks of the season, so I was shown Freddy's way of how to get better. And Freddy's way was, you went on the other field where everybody else was practicing, you did your 'get down on the ground, get up, run five yards, get down, get up.'
"It didn't seem that hard, but we never stopped doing it. After a little bit of that, running hills and pushing the golf cart with Freddy having his foot on the pedal, you gained some toughness real quick, and you got yourself out on that practice field because it was way worse dealing with Freddy out there and going through that conditioning. He kind of knew who to put in those situations and what to do to get the most out of that."
Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller: "Fred … wanted you to be ready, but he would not put you in a position if you were not ready, so that built up the trust. You always felt safe with Fred. He was the kind of guy that would push you, which was also good. I would not have gotten those more than 200 games if Fred had not been there to say, 'Hey, you can go. You're ready.'
Eller recalled his effort to get an "easy day off, not a working day off" from practice:
"I'd bark, and I'd go, 'Fred, I definitely can't go outside. I've got to stay inside,' and Fred would go, 'Well, you know Moose, I'll tell you, go out and see and just do what you can do. That's all.' Those were words that I hated to come out of his mouth, but that's what you got from Fred, 'Just do what you can do, Moose, just do what you can do.' It worked."
The tie that binds
The Vikings first 57 years included nine head coaches, nearly 1,300 players who have been active for at least one game and hundreds of full-time workers over the years, but only one Fred Zamberletti. He was with the organization in some capacity from its opening training camp in Bemidji and first preseason game in South Dakota through the 2018 preseason, a run of 1,179 games.
Mitch Berger, during the Celebration of Life event, explained:
"One thing where you know somebody's really left a mark and you know somebody's important to a lot of people – somebody who can bring people together even when they're not in the room. That's what Freddy did, and that's what he's doing for us today. And one more time, he's the constant – everybody's here around Freddy."
Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant: "When you take a football team, the team is comprised of a lot of people. It's not one person. There are integral parts, but they're all important. You hear about the players, you hear about the coaches, you hear about other people on the team, you hear about general managers, presidents, owners, but there's a lot of people you don't hear about who are equally important to the team – equipment men, the doctors and the trainers.
"Trainers probably are as valuable to the team as any player or any coach. They make a lot of decisions and have closer contact to the players than the coaches do. So Fred had that in spades. He was very close to the players, they had great confidence in his recommendations and his regimens of injury recovery and treatment and whatnot. They had a lot of faith – the players had faith and the coaches had faith.
"So Fred was as important part of our team as any player we've ever had here over the years. And longevity, too. The experience and everything he brought to the Vikings was invaluable. When you talk about the Vikings, you talk about the team, you don't always hear about Fred Zamberletti, but he was as important a part of the team as any player, any coach was for the time he was here."