Over 74 years as a newspaperman, I have met all types of people involved in athletics. Two individuals have proven unique in their incredible overall impact: Lloyd “Snapper” Stein, who was the Gophers trainer for 41 years, and Fred Zamberletti, who was the trainer for the Vikings for 40 years and then stayed on as their historian before he died Sunday at age 86.
These two men were trusted and confided in explicitly by their athletes. And if a player had a problem, these were the men they went to for help.
I knew Zamberletti since his days at the University of Iowa, where he worked for seven years. He was one in a million.
Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton said that when he was 21 and drove from Athens, Ga., to Bemidji for the first Vikings training camp in 1961, the first person he met was Zamberletti.
“He became one of my best friends for life,” Tarkenton said. “He was as important as anybody that has ever been in the Vikings organization.
“He treated everybody, whether you were the star of the team or the youngest rookie on the team, you were important to him. He never raised his voice. He never said a negative thing about anybody. He just was as important as any Viking in the history of this proud franchise.”
Tarkenton said in those early days of the Vikings, there was a lot of pressure on every player. “He was everybody’s best friend, a confidant,” he said. “He was a sane voice in an insane world.
“He was in that locker room every day, in that training room every day. If you needed to get treatment at 12 o’clock at night, he was in there at 12 o’clock at night. He was as loyal as a person could ever be to all of us players, all the coaches, and he is just iconic.”
Tarkenton said there is no franchise without him.
“He deserves to be in that Circle of Honor,” he said. “When you talk about the greats, and historically there are so many of them, Fred Zamberletti, Stubby Eason, the former equipment manager, Bud Grant, so on and so forth — they built this franchise.”
Tarkenton said he got to call Zamberletti on Saturday to say goodbye. “That’s probably the most meaningful five minutes of my life, talking to Fred yesterday,” he said. “Every time I think about it, I cry a little bit, because we lost a giant of a man. I want all young Vikings fans to look up Fred Zamberletti and never forget him. He was the heart and soul and the foundation of what we call the Vikings.”
Grant said his conversation with Zamberletti on Saturday was also a tearful and difficult one. When Grant considers Stein and Zamberletti, he said that what made them great trainers was their dedication to the players’ well-being.
What came to Grant’s mind when he thought of Zamberletti?
“First of all it was integrity. Anything the players would say in the training room, Fred never came to me with that,” he said. “The players could talk with immunity knowing that what they were talking about never got to the coaches. Fred heard a lot of things that maybe I would be interested in, but he never, ever talked to me about gossip or what he heard players doing or saying or what their opinions were of any other part of the football team.
“His integrity was top grade. He had the full confidence of the players, at all times.”
Jerry Burns, who worked with Zamberletti both at Iowa and with the Vikings, said that Sunday was a day of tremendous loss.
“The players knew that he was always so close to them and had a great relationship with the players,” Burns said. “I just hate that this happened today.
“He was a great guy, a hardworking guy, a thorough guy. Everything about him was first class. But he was a great guy and I just feel terrible that he passed away.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org