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CARLTON PEAK… There are some rare individuals who come along once in a great while who due to who they work for or are affiliated with, they gain some notoriety in this life. Within the aura of a professional sports organization, if you work for it or if you follow it closer then the average fan you know who these individuals are. They may or may not seek any publicity for what they do, they just go about their business and do it. Everyone at that organization understands their value, but most others on the outside looking in, do not. As time goes on and a career builds and if, just if, you perform at your vocation mostly better then everyone else who does the same thing for a living, if your level of dedication, commitment, uniqueness and outright excellence exceeds the norms we might expect, chances are that you might become well known for your contributions to that organization. Even so, in most cases you have to have “been there” to have a full appreciation for that.
Minnesota Vikings former Head Athletic Trainer Fred Zamberletti was that person. If you were trying to write the perfect definition for the qualities that a person like that might have, you would just write the story of Fred’s career. Fred passed away Sunday morning at the age of 86. A back problem turned into an infection problem and it was a battle that medical science could not prevail over. That Fred passed on a Sunday morning is not lost on me, depending on the time of year it was either time for a football game or a church service, or both if he could do it. It was properly fitting to say the least. That’s purely the football angels nodding in approval to a man who was crossing that bridge to the Golden Gates of heaven. The number of people that Fred touched within the football community, that would take a couple of month’s worth of columns to list. So too would the list of those he touched outside of the football world. My family and I were blessed to have been on that list.
Fred was a native of Iowa, attended the University of Iowa, served in the 1st Infantry, worked at Hibbing General Hospital as their therapist, and then at the University of Toledo as their Head Trainer. In 1961 he was hired by the newly franchised Minnesota Vikings, the 3rd person hired by the team and shortly thereafter, he and his wife and two young daughters became my families neighbor. I was 6 ½ at the time and my sudden exposure to the world of pro sports had that young guy fairly wide eyed to say the least. Over the years I can say that I had a unique opportunity to see the life and times of Fred unfold right before me. We had some players as neighbors back then as well. Living at the end of West 7th in St. Paul, right before crossing the Mighty Mississippi meant that our proximity to practice at the old Midway Stadium, for games at the old Metropolitan Stadium and to the airport was just about equidistant. In other words, it was perfect.
Needless to say, my folks, younger brother Paul and I were chomping-at-the-bit fans before the first ever pre-season game was even played. As Fred had a penchant for applying nicknames to most guys he came to know, my brother and I were “Moco and Pogo” and my late father Bill quickly became “Captain Willy”. My son Bill is now little Captain Willy. Well, suddenly I was like the luckiest kid in St. Paul. Fred began taking me along on Viking errands, going out to the Midway for practice, out to the Met the night before games to make sure everything was set up “just right” for the battle to come the next day. The team back in those days had an old Ford Econoline van, and mostly, the teams Equipment Manager back then, “Stubby” Eason used it to haul things back and forth between the Midway and the Met, but Fred would take it to go pickup cases and cases of white athletic tape and then we would go put it away at either of the stadiums. The van had the Vikings insignia painted on the side along with the big Purple horns that are so famous now and I’m guessing that when we were out running errands my little chest was probably puffed out far enough to reach the windshield. As lucky as I was to have these experiences, probably my favorite thing was the soda machine in the locker room at the Midway that required no coins. That’s called kid nirvana isn’t it?
Over time I came to see and know what made Fred so indispensable to this team. I remember him putting together the first team Isometrics guide for the players. My mom Connie did the artwork for it and I know she is hurting over this loss as I write today. I recall Fred leaving in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner to go give treatment to a player. I know for absolute fact of the personal relationships that he developed over the years with every single man that ever put on that jersey. And for the guys who would play for the team for years, for some of the pretty big-name stars, they would tell you just how responsible Fred was for keeping them together, so they could perform at the level they did for so long. I know of the devastation of the four Super Bowl losses, of the Karl Kassulke accident, I know how hard the passing of Korey Stringer hit Fred personally and the organization too. Then there was the winning. One whole heck of a lot of it. The Bud Grant era was pretty special wasn’t it? Bud would be the first to tell you of the depth of Fred’s contribution to that, and I’m telling you firsthand here, he is undeniably right.
Fred has been referred to as “Mr. Viking” and it’s more then appropriate. He was just that. The mystique and aura the club has built over the years, the integrity involved, the knowledge of the effort required to be the best, everything that has been required to be able to refer to yourself as a “World Class” organization, Fred was all in. He helped set the pace, and he helped to maintain that pace. To be certain, the team had its ups and downs over the years, but none of that was due to any less effort from Fred. His nurturing, advice and guidance to his steads never wavered, ever. Sunday morning as the news of Fred’s passing filtered out, former star Chuck Foreman said that there should be a statue made in Fred’s honor. Count me in on that. NO single person has contributed more to the history of this team. It would be quite fitting… PEACE