Andrew Papenfus: Comeback extraordinaire

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Andrew Papenfus stands with his father, Dr. Kurt Papenfus, at the Santa Clara game at Michgian State on Nov. 24. Andrew Papenfus has been traveling with the Broncos as he awaits clearance to return to practice this week.
Courtesy photo |



Yes, practice.

Andrew Papenfus cannot wait to practice again.

The senior basketball player at Santa Clara University and a former Aspen High School multisport standout athlete, Papenfus will celebrate a happy New Year this week when he steps back onto the Broncos’ practice floor in California.

“I’m feeling great. I’m very excited to get back to practice,” Papenfus said in a telephone interview with The Aspen Times. “I have an appointment (today) with the (University of California, San Francisco) doctors hopefully to get cleared to practice.”

That could put the 6’6” senior forward on a basketball court again Tuesday after undergoing brain surgery Oct. 6 to remove a tumor.

“It’s definitely been a process,” Papenfus said of the journey through the world of modern medicine that started with an out-of-the-blue seizure June 17 at a Santa Clara youth basketball camp.

Diagnosis: a benign brain tumor that must be removed.

Doctors gave Papenfus options, including possibly delaying surgery until after his senior basketball season.

But after contemplating the situation with his family and relying on his faith, Papenfus said he opted for surgery right away.

“I prayed about it,” Papenfus said, adding that if God wants him to play basketball again, then he will come back.

“If not, then I had a great time with basketball.”

Dr. Mitchel Berger, a leader in the field and chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, performed the operation, removing the entire tumor.

“I was lucky how it worked out, being in the Bay Area,” Papenfus said, eager for a chance to play in front of Dr. Berger and the medical team Feb. 12 when the Broncos visit for a game against the University of San Francisco.

“I’m definitely excited to play in San Francisco,” said Papenfus, who said he had incredible support from his Santa Clara family and his Aspen family and friends.

“I couldn’t have done it myself. I had a ton of support,” said Papenfus, who was a stalwart as a hockey player and a football player growing up in Aspen.

“I was a late bloomer in basketball,” he said, crediting the encouragement of friend Matt Holmes, who convinced him to stick with basketball.

Then, with a growth spurt, he started to flourish as a high school basketball player, helping the Skiers into the final four — twice.

As a senior, the Skiers finished 26-1, state runner-up.

“You have to have a positive attitude. You have to keep working, day in and day out,” Papenfus said of the drive that helped him through his ordeal — something he refined as an all-state player under then-head coach Steve Ketchum at Aspen High School.

“He and I shared that,” Papenfus said. “That … idea to always work hard. Be your best every day.”

Papenfus’ approach to his medical challenge didn’t surprise Ketchum at all.

“Andrew has always been a fighter and a really positive person,” said Ketchum, who coached Papenfus all through high school and through two summer tours of European basketball. “He’s been in our prayers. I was fortunate I got to know him as a friend when we traveled to Europe twice with his family. … What a great family,” Ketchum said.

“He is such a winner,” the longtime AHS basketball coach said. “He played on two state final four teams, and the first team to play … for the state championship.”

En route to honors as the Max Preps player of the year in Colorado, Papenfus powered the Aspen Skiers into their most successful season in history in 2010.

“Yes, he was surrounded by good players, but he was the catalyst for that season,” Ketchum said. “He and Matthew Holmes. Yes, he set all kinds of records. More than all that, he’s what you want your kids to be like. Be like Andrew.”

After graduation from Aspen High School, Papenfus joined Santa Clara basketball as a walk-on.

He transferred to Div. II Hawai-Hilo, where he played for two seasons before transferring back to Santa Clara.

He’s on schedule to graduate June 13.

“I’m looking forward to that,” he said, crediting the enduring support of his mother and father, Joanne and Kurt Papenfus.

“I’ve had incredible support,” he said. “I’d like to tell the community of Aspen ‘thank you’ for your thoughts and prayers.”