Krek gets a heart: Longtime Worthington athletic trainer Joel Krekelberg is 2018 Fred Zamberletti Award recipient

WORTHINGTON -- Told that he'll be expected to speak to a crowd of more than a thousand people, Joel Krekelberg wants to be ready. He says he knows what he wants to say on April 29 when he's recognized at the 11th annual Minnesota Football Honors ...

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Joel Krekelberg, shown attending to a player injury during the football season, is the 2018 recipient of the Fred Zamberletti Award. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Told that he’ll be expected to speak to a crowd of more than a thousand people, Joel Krekelberg wants to be ready. He says he knows what he wants to say on April 29 when he’s recognized at the 11th annual Minnesota Football Honors at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I’m terribly nervous. What I’m finding out more than anything is what a humbling thing it is,” he said this week as he discussed receiving the Fred Zamberletti Award at the home of the Minnesota Vikings.

It’s a big deal, the Zamberletti Award. Krekelberg, a Worthington native, said his stomach dropped when he learned he was to be the recipient of the 2018 honor.

“Fred Zamberletti. My best way to describe it, if you were a football coach and got the Bud Grant Award (for community service), that’s what it’s like if you’re a trainer and got an award like this,” the suitably modest Krekelberg said.

The award is named for the legendary first trainer of the Vikings. The April 29 event is the largest football awards event in Minnesota.


A Worthington High School graduate, “Krek” continued his education at Worthington Community College to play basketball and begin earning a degree in physical education. He then went on to Mankato State University to pursue athletic training. He worked at the New Orleans Saints training camp in 1977 and 1978, and at the end of camp he began a seven-year stint as a full-time trainer with the Houston Oilers.

Upon returning to Worthington in 1985 he went into the real estate business with his father. For several years he has been an appraiser while volunteering as an athletic trainer at Worthington High School and Minnesota West Community and Technical College. He is a Sanford Health employee.

Krekelberg is a hospice volunteer. He is also a devoted quilter, and gives many of his creations to others. He carves hearts, which he passes along, as well.

“I get my joy from knowing that it meant something to somebody,” he explained.

In high school, Krekelberg contemplated entering the priesthood. He later decided against it, determining that he wanted a family. He is now divorced, the father of two boys.

As a teen-ager, he considered becoming a basketball coach. But all that changed after being greatly impacted by his high school buddy Mike Patrick, who in 1971 suffered a paralyzing accident while trying to make a tackle in a Worthington Trojans football game. The accident made Patrick a quadriplegic, leading him into a career as a motivational speaker while founding Patrick Communications Inc., which featured the slogan, “What he has to say may change your life.”

“When we went over and watched Mike go through his stuff, his rehab, I thought I might want to be an athletic trainer or physical therapist,” said Krekelberg. “I decided that this would be a field where I could help others.”

He does that, and more, say his friends.


“He does so much for our community and taking care of our college athletes, and he’s always willing to help anybody any way that he can,” said longtime Minnesota West football coach Jeff Linder. “There are so many things that people don’t see, just having him on the sidelines or on a basketball court, about the things he does for people.”

Besides serving as an athletic trainer for 40 years and a real estate appraiser for 25, Krekelberg teaches a class, “Intro to Sports Medicine,” at Minnesota West.

Krek’s personal interests, however, may be most telling about his underlying substance.

As a hospice volunteer, he sits alongside individuals going through their final days -- praying, reading scripture, visiting with family members.

“I look at it as a gift. Because most people aren’t comfortable in that position. But I feel completely at peace. My mother said, ‘You’re closest to God at the birth of someone or at the death of someone.’ And she was a hospice volunteer, too,” Krekelberg said.

He is creative with his quilting, and devoted despite the fact that he used to get teased about it by his coach friends.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands,” he said.

Looking for another way to work with his hands, he began to carve hearts out of wood. He gave his first heart to his brother-in-law at the death of his mother. His brother-in-law confided to him that when he thought he was going to “lose it” while giving the eulogy, he’d finger the heart that he kept in his pocket. That confession, said Krekelberg, inspired him to do more hearts and to give them away.


Krekelberg’s life of inspiring others goes at least as far back as his Houston Oiler days. In the late 1970s, he came across a quote from an article in Sports Illustrated magazine. He cut it out, and he showed the quote to future Hall of Famer Earl Campbell while the bruising running back was in his second year in the NFL. Campbell asked if he could keep it.

Ten years later Campbell saw Krekelberg at a “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers reunion, and the big back opened his wallet to show his old friend the quote, carefully preserved.

The quote is this: “Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident, money has wings. But character lives forever.”

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at
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