Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | Features

Mr. Viking

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Fred Zamberletti (right) and trainer Chuck Barta tend to running back Moe Williams.

100-degree days. As humid as a sauna. Mosquitoes tenacious as barnacles and hungry for blood. In August at the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Mankato, Minnesota, the professional football players—who usually look like they just stepped off a Greek vase—are wilting in the unforgiving heat. Among them, Fred Zamberletti reclines in his golf cart, pushed up and down the field by recuperating players as if he were an emperor on a throne.

Not many men can intimidate a professional football player. At first glance, 72-year-old Zamberletti, 55BA, 56CER, wouldn’t seem to be an exception. He’s just over six feet tall, a little thin on top, a little soft around the middle, but with a face like an earnest little kid. His eyebrows tend to arc up in the center. His smile is a little wider on the left side, as though he’s remembering a joke he’s heard a hundred times but still thinks is funny.

This is the man whose workouts have been described as “medieval” and “torturous”?

Zamberletti goes back to the beginning of Vikings football. He was one of the first men hired when the team started in 1961 and he is one of the pioneers in the field of athletic training. He’s been called “Trainer for Life,” “Mr. Viking,” and, simply, “The Man.” The first to admit that his passion for his team borders on addiction, Zamberletti hasn’t missed one of the Vikings’ 917 games. He’s worked hard all his life. He expects nothing less from his players.

Fred Zamberletti Minnesota Vikings "Trainer for Life" Fred Zamberletti owes his illustrious career to his UI education and mentors.

Because Zamberletti knows just how much the human body can take, he doesn’t pay any mind when players start bragging about having survived his grueling regimen or crowing about rehabbing a knee by pushing wheelbarrows full of dirt. Brushing those comments aside like a fat mosquito, he says, “Sometimes people can make sitting under a shade tree in a rocking chair sound like work.”

Zamberletti was born in 1932 in the small central Iowa town of Melcher. His father, an Italian immigrant, worked in a coal mine before scraping enough money together to start a small grocery store. His mother, also Italian, never finished high school. They made it clear they wanted something better for their son.

“From the time I can remember, they were always stressing college,” Zamberletti recalls. “College, college, college.”

So, after graduating from Melcher Public High in 1950, Zamberletti started working seven-day weeks at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Des Moines. Not to buy a car or to spend on girls, but to save the $152 he’d need for his first year’s tuition and $560 for room and board at the University of Iowa.

It was a big deal to go from a small town to the university in 1952. Zamberletti went from a class of 14 kids he’d known his whole life to join a class bigger than his hometown. He had to hustle to compete with classmates who had been better prepared in high school and whose parents could afford tutors to guide them through tough courses. Hiring extra help wasn’t an option for Zamberletti: he and his buddy, Hawkeye football player Frank Gilliam, 57BA, had to sell a pint of blood just to afford an occasional Airliner pizza.

School was incredibly hard, but—with all his parents’ hopes riding on him—Zamberletti couldn’t give up. He just studied and studied, no matter that it took him longer than other students. He wouldn’t find out that he had a learning disability until much later, when his own son was diagnosed with dyslexia.

At Iowa, Zamberletti found two mentors—basketball coach Bucky O’Connor and track coach George Bresnahan. With their support, he struggled through his courses to graduate and then went on to earn his certificate in physical therapy. “Without them, who knows?” Zamberletti says. “I could still be working at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Des Moines.”

The mid-1950s was a golden age for Hawkeye sports. In football, Forest Evashevski’s wing-T offense was unstoppable, taking the team to the Rose Bowl twice. On the basketball court, O’Connor’s teams climbed to become NCAA runners-up, also twice. And Zamberletti’s roommate, Terry McCann, 57BSC, wrestled his way to an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960.

Minnesota Vikings Logo Minnesota Vikings

Zamberletti soaked up as much as he could. After graduating from the physical therapy school, he stayed on as an assistant athletic trainer for three years, taking a year off to serve in the military. He’d work in physical therapy at University Hospitals in the morning, then sit in on a physiology course before going to work at the athletic department—where he made 95 cents an hour—in the afternoon. In the evening, he’d tutor athletes for $1 a head. If they couldn’t pay, Zamberletti helped them anyway.

Between 1959 and 1961, Zamberletti spent short stints as chief physical therapist at Hibbing General Hospital in northern Minnesota and as head athletic trainer for the University of Toledo in Ohio. When he heard Minnesota was getting a football franchise, though, he knew he had to be a part of it.

Zamberletti started calling everyone he knew who might have a connection with the owners. He wrote letters asking for a chance to interview for the job. The owners told Zamberletti they weren’t ready to think about a trainer. They didn’t even have a coach yet.

Still, Zamberletti kept his eye on the Vikings. They hired general manager Bert Rose. Zamberletti called friends to put in a good word. The team hired Norm Van Brocklin as head coach. Zamberletti wrote again. Finally, in 1961, the Vikings were ready. Zamberletti got the interview and he got the job. They offered him $6,000 a season, $500 less than he was making at Toledo. He took it without a second thought.

Over the next year, though, Zamberletti often wondered if he’d made the right decision. “It was hard work,” he says. “It wasn’t like it is today, where you have so many assistants. You had to do it all yourself.”

Athletic training was a new field. No one in the business had studied it in school, because practically no schools were teaching it. Most of Zamberletti’s peers were World War II corpsmen, hired for their experience administering medical aid to soldiers in battle.

The hours were long and the learning curve was steep. Without assistants or even team doctors, Zamberletti had to identify player injuries, treat them, and help athletes train to avoid reinjury. At training camp—where days started at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until after 11 p.m.—Zamberletti rehabilitated injured players by having them run, lift, and, yes, push him in a golf cart. Between practices, he taught them to play bocce ball and cribbage. After lights-out, he made the rounds to make sure the athletes didn’t sneak off for a little bonding of their own design.

The players of the era were working-class guys, too, playing for the love of the game. The rookies would endure six or seven brutal weeks of training camp and play six preseason games without making a nickel. Veterans earned $50 for a preseason game. After the final game, they packed up and went home to their regular jobs.

Now, of course, pro football suggests a lucrative career, where a serious injury can mean the loss of millions of dollars and celebrity status for any individual player. Zamberletti, who became medical services coordinator for the Vikings in 1998 and a senior consultant in 2001, doesn’t just help players get back in the game; he tries to help them keep their perspective.

In 2001, Korey Stringer, an All-Pro offensive tackle for the Vikings, collapsed on the field during training camp. It was Zamberletti who called the ambulance, and who stayed with Stringer in the hospital until he died early the next morning from complications brought on by heat stroke.

“Korey was a very close friend,” Zamberletti says. “He was a thoughtful individual. That bothers you; it really does. I don’t know that you ever get over it.”

Stringer had fainted on the field the day before, and many think that on the day he died, he was trying to save face. In 2002, Stringer’s widow sued Vikings staff, including Zamberletti, alleging they’d failed to act quickly enough to save her husband. Earlier this year, a judge dismissed the suit.

Stringer has been the only one to die at a Vikings training camp, but he hasn’t been the only player in the game to push himself past reason. Several NFL players have collapsed and died during or after games and practices. As Zamberletti guides players through their rehabilitation, he often plays psychologist as well as physiologist. He shows them how to channel their frustration and impatience; how to bend, but not break, under the enormous pressure professional athletes must endure. Zamberletti pushes his players as athletes, but he always respects them as individuals.

“Knowing that these players are human is probably my number one contribution,” he says. “Letting them know they’re more than just a football player, more than what they earn, more than what people think they are. To let them know that and to understand they have a right to their feelings and they don’t have to be perfect. That’s what it’s all about.”

And Zamberletti’s golf cart? It turns out to be the perfect closed-chain exercise. The weight of the cart keeps the player’s foot under control and prevents his kneecap from grinding against other bones. “Legendary Hawkeye coach Dr. Eddie Anderson used closed-chain exercises by having his players with knee injuries climb the stairs at Kinnick Stadium,” says Zamberletti.

The knees are the most vulnerable part of a football player’s body and injuries to the ligaments that stabilize the joints are a common, excruciating experience for pro ball players. It takes surgery and months of therapy for an athlete to regain his mobility after tearing a ligament, but, when it’s done, his knee is actually stronger.

In his decades of watching the body’s remarkable ability to heal, Zamberletti has learned a reverence for our physical form and a spiritual appreciation for the human design. Because, in the end, it’s not just about the hard work. For Zamberletti, it’s about how we seem to have been built to fall and to get up again. Built with a resilience that challenges us to do better.

For Zamberletti, physical training isn’t only about healing injuries; it’s about taking adversity and using it to become stronger.