A brain tumor had threatened Andrew Papenfus’ future, but after a successful surgery, he’s back on the ball court.
Andrew Papenfus ’15 had—and has—his priorities clearly in the right order.
“When I was making my decision,” he said, “my health was most important, then school, then basketball.”
Papenfus, a Santa Clara senior, faced a decision downright frightening for anyone and almost unimaginable for a college student: He needed to choose when to schedule his brain surgery.
This season finally was going to be the one in which Papenfus would contribute for the Broncos on the court.
He came to Santa Clara as a walk-on from Colorado’s Aspen High in 2010. He spent his freshman season as the team manager, then transferred to Division II Hawaii-Hilo. He played in 25 of 26 games for the Vulcans.
A marketing major, Papenfus figured his career goals would be better served at a university in the heart of Silicon Valley, so he returned to Santa Clara. He redshirted (in his Santa Clara bio, he’s listed as a “practice player” for the 2012–13 season), then played sparingly last season, scoring a grand total of five points.
After last season, the Broncos looked thin in the frontcourt, and Papenfus, a 6-foot-6 forward, improved his game and his body in spring workouts.
“I just really was determined,” Papenfus said. “It was my last year. I wanted to make an impact.”
Head coach Kerry Keating took notice; he planned to play Papenfus about 10 minutes per game this season.
Those plans changed June 17.
During one of the Broncos’ camps for kids, Papenfus was demonstrating a drill. He missed a 3-point shot, chased after the rebound, and fell.
“It felt like I pulled my hamstring,” Papenfus said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is weird.’”
“At first, it looked like he tripped and hurt his ankle, and I thought it was embarrassing,” said his teammate and good friend Nate Kratch ’16. “Then I saw him shaking, and then I kind of knew that’s what a seizure is.”
Papenfus soon was taken to O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, where over the next two days, it was determined that he had a brain tumor and that the tumor was benign.
Keating was with Papenfus in the hospital for most of those two days.
“Your paternal instincts take over more in times of crisis than your coaching instincts,” Keating said.
“[Keating] basically was a fill-in dad,” says Papenfus. “Like, ‘Hey, I want the best for this kid.’ He treated me like his own son.”
Papenfus’ mother, Joanne, is a certified caregiver who works with the elderly. She flew from Colorado to the Bay Area the day after Andrew’s seizure. His father, Kurt, is an emergency-room doctor who had to stay in Colorado for a while because he was on call.
When Kurt had received the call that his son had a brain tumor, his initial reaction was one with which any parent can sympathize. “Your heart falls through your stomach, into the floor,” he said.
For the next two months, the Papenfus family (Andrew has a younger brother, Stephan, who attends the University of Northern Colorado) and the Santa Clara basketball community supported Andrew as he contemplated a powerful, perhaps life-altering, choice.
Doctors had determined the tumor would have to be removed, but they gave him the option of delaying surgery until after the season.
Said Papenfus: “At first, I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to play. I’ve worked so hard for this. This has been my dream.’”
He gradually reconsidered. In late August, Papenfus spent time with his girlfriend, Dani Rottman ’16 (a Santa Clara volleyball player), in her hometown of Santa Barbara.
Around that time, he opted to have the surgery as soon as possible.
“I was praying about it,” Papenfus said. “If [God] wants me to play basketball, then I’ll make a comeback. If not, then I had a great time with” basketball. Andrew chose to have the operation done by Dr. Mitchel Berger, the chairman of neurological surgery at UCSF.
“When it was all said and done, it was an easy decision,” Berger said of Papenfus’ choice. “It was never about his future as an athlete. It was about his future as a person—and he made the right decision.”
Dr. Berger performed the surgery Oct. 6. For part of the procedure, Papenfus needed to remain awake. During that stretch, he began having another seizure, “which is not totally unusual,” Berger said.
To stop the seizure, Dr. Berger poured a cold solution on Papenfus’ brain. “It actually felt like they were pouring cold water on my legs,” Papenfus said, “so it was quite a sensation.” The operation was a success; Dr. Berger removed the entire tumor. He praised Papenfus’ outlook before, during, and after the surgery.
“I think having a positive attitude and feeling comfortable with the plan is critical for anybody, any individual who’s faced with a very difficult situation,” Berger said.
Those close to Papenfus say he’s a glass-half-full (maybe two-thirds- or three-quarters-full) individual. His ability to look on the bright side of things has helped not only him but also his family, friends, and teammates over the past six months.
“He just made it easy to be positive,” Keating said, “because he was so damn positive throughout the whole thing.”
Said Joanne Papenfus: “It’s just reinforcement that everything will work out, that he’ll have a long life and we’ll all grow old together.”
Andrew missed two weeks of classes in the fall quarter because of the surgery and recuperation from it, but he managed to get through a full 15 units.
As for basketball, he has not been cleared for full practice. He does work on his free-throw shooting and his 3-point shooting—“so I don’t lose all my touch,” he joked.
He rehabs his right foot (the surgery affected the right side of his body) and serves as a quasi-assistant coach.
“You listen to what he says just because of the way he speaks and the way he carries himself,” guard Jared Brownridge ’17 said. “He’s a great leader, on the court and off the court.
“Even before this incident, he was a guy we all listened to.”
Papenfus can provide “inside basketball” advice to his teammates. He also offers inspirational words.
“He talks to us about pride every time we have a game,” Brownridge said, “playing as hard as we can, leaving it all out there on the floor because he knows that he’s still racing for his chance to be out there on the court and he knows it can be over at any time.”
Jan. 6 is the next key date for Papenfus; he is scheduled to begin participating in practice then.
The overriding question, of course: Will Papenfus be able to get in a game this season?
“I see no contraindication to it at all,” Dr. Berger said. “I have no problem with it at all. He’s not at increased risk for having a concussion or any other type of an injury that would be secondary to having the previous surgery. He’s good to go, as far as I’m concerned.”
Keating is almost equally optimistic. “At the worst case,” Keating said, Papenfus “starts for us on Senior Day” against St. Mary’s on Feb. 28.
If Papenfus does play for the Broncos this season, prepare for more than a few moist eyes in the stands.
“I can tear up just thinking about it,” Kurt Papenfus said. “That’s just another testament to the human spirit, what somebody can do.”
Joanne Papenfus said her son “would be elated, and I would be elated for him. I’d be tickled pink. I’d probably start to cry.”
Andrew seems at peace whether he returns to the court or not.
“If I can’t play, I’m not going to be removed from the game,” he said. “I’m still going to be there for my teammates, coaching them on the sidelines. Being what I can be in the capacity I can be. It’s more about the team than myself. …
“If I am able to play, dreams do come true. Through hard work, dedication, and never giving up, you can make a lot of things happen that people think there’s no shot [of happening]. I’ll never give up.
“I’ll keep striving to play. I do believe I’m going to play.”
Steve Kroner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. This article first appeared under a different title on SFGate on December 25, 2014.