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Zulgad: Zamberletti was a throwback to before football was corporate

By Judd Zulgad

The Vikings’ move from Winter Park in Eden Prairie to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan last March caused the observation to be made that the franchise was now completely corporate.

The outdated Metrodome was replaced by the most modern of football venues, U.S. Bank Stadium, in 2016. That still left the franchise practicing at a facility that had only two fields and once saw cornerback Ken Irvin go flying into a wooded area (literally) as he tried to break up a pass. But Winter Park now sits empty and the Vikings’ pockets are full of cash.

The NFL has become a billion-dollar venture that has little time for stories of the old days or characters.

Nonetheless, the springtime observation that the shift to Eagan had ended the Vikings’ connection to the past turned out to be flawed. That occurred to me on Sunday upon seeing the news that longtime Vikings athletic trainer Fred Zamberletti had passed away at the age of 86. Zamberletti was among the last true links to the Vikings being about football and not business.

If you haven’t read Patrick Reusse’s column on Zamberletti from Friday’s Star Tribune you need to do so. It paints a fantastic picture of what Zamberletti meant to so many involved with the franchise.

Zamberletti was the Vikings’ athletic trainer from their first season in 1961 through 1998. He went into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor in ’98. He then became a senior consultant and team historian. Zamberletti was serving in the latter two capacities when I joined Kevin Seifert on the Vikings beat working for the Star Tribune in 2005.

As Jon Krawczynski of the Athletic tweeted on Sunday, there was nothing better than seeing Zamberletti standing on the practice field — maybe at training camp in Mankato, maybe at Winter Park — and getting a “Whaddaya say there, boy?”

It was how Zamberletti greeted everybody and it didn’t matter who you were. Zamberletti never played favorites. The smart move was to do as little talking as possible because Zamberletti was full of stories and, most importantly, he had the ability to tell those stories with all the details included.

Zamberletti was kind but he also had a gruff side that was a throwback to the NFL he knew best. Remarkably, he attended every single Vikings game from Day 1 through Dec. 24, 2011, according to the Star Tribune. The streak hit 1,049 before ending.

A native of Melcher, Iowa, Zamberletti was an early riser and he expected the same from others. There was more than one Vikings intern who mentioned that Zamberletti had expressed his displeasure with that day’s newspaper clippings having shown up a bit later than he liked. The only thing was one got the feeling “Zamby” thought anything after 6 in the morning was a bit late.

This was one of the reasons that Zamberletti qualified as a character — this is meant strictly as a positive — in a sport where being one is now seen as a negative.

There once seemed to be great pride taken in being considered a character in your sport. Talking to people and regaling them with stories, even the media, was the norm. These days if you talk to a member of the media too long, and you’re not part of the media relations staff, you’re liable to be asked to turn over all records of your conversation.

What made Zamberletti special was the fact that you wanted to talk to him not for inside information but rather his stories about the Vikings’ past or just to listen to him philosophize on any number of subjects, many of which had nothing to do with football.

In addition to greeting visitors with a “Whaddaya say there, boy?,” Zamberletti had another special welcome especially for Star Tribune writers. Kent Youngblood was a colleague of mine for many years at the paper and had returned from a few years at the Wisconsin State Journal in the late 1990s to cover the Vikings.

Youngblood spent a few years on the beat before moving on to write about another team. Zamberletti never forgot him. “Where’s Hemingway?” Zamberletti would say in reference to Youngblood’s whereabouts even years after he had left the Vikings beat.

Zamberletti was far more than a one-line type of guy.

Years before I started on the Vikings beat at the Star Tribune, I spent a lengthy period writing for Bob Lurtsema’s “Viking Update.” Lurtsema, who definitely qualifies as a character, and Zamberletti were friends from Lurtsema‘s many years with the Vikings.

Lurtsema gave me an assignment to go talk with Zamberletti about Fred’s idea for the location of a Vikings stadium. I want to say this was shortly after Red McCombs had bought the franchise in 1998 and was looking to get out of the Metrodome.

In what turned into a lengthy meeting just outside the Vikings’ locker room at Winter Park, Zamberletti discussed his idea to build a Vikings stadium on the site of the State Fairgrounds complete with a parking plan and numerous other well-thought out tidbits.

It never crossed my mind just how unique it was to hear this proposal. Zamberletti, who might have still been the team’s trainer, was giving his own blue print for a new stadium.

Can you imagine someone in Zamberletti‘s position providing his vision for a team’s NFL stadium in 2018? It wouldn’t happen. That’s too bad.

A wise man, a fantastic story teller and a character in sport where there are few characters left, Zamberletti will be missed.

The post Zulgad: Zamberletti was a throwback to before football was corporate appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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