Teammate fondly recalls Fred Opperman


John Cantwell, Special to the Leader

Contributed Photo The 1957 Shawano High School boys basketball team defeated Madison West, 66-61, in the state championship game. The team included, from left, front row, manager Fred Wittlinger, John Cantwell, Martin Gharrity, Mike Dodge, Bernard Prusik, Tom Spohn, Harley Lyons, manager Larry Reisner; back row, assistant coach Walt Hein, manager Mike Mayerl, Jerry Klose, Fred Opperman, Loren Wolf, Dave Meyer and head coach John Kenney.

Contributed Photo Shawano High School teammates Fred Opperman and John Cantwell were part of the two-time state champion basketball team in 1956-57.

Editor’s note: John Cantwell, a 1958 graduate of Shawano High School, wrote this essay about Fred Opperman, 78, who passed away on Oct. 5. They were members of the SHS state championship basketball teams in 1956 and 1957. Shawano went 22-6 during the 1956 season and beat Appleton 74-68 in the championship game. The Indians were 27-2 during the 1957 season and defeated Madison West 66-61 for the title.

My friend and basketball teammate, Fred, was a gentle giant and a man of deep faith, which no doubt sustained him during his own severe health problems and the devastating illness that claimed his wife and star athlete daughter in close succession.

I first saw Fred when watching an eighth-grade St. James basketball game. The largest boy on the court, he had a soft touch on outside shots from the top of the key and was deadly accurate from the free-throw line. He had perfected these shots with hours of practice (in between farm chores) on the hoop inside his family barn.

In high school, Fred wore size 16 Converse tennis shoes, not easy to find in those days. We used to tease him that his shoes came in with the shipment of skis at the K&G sports store.

Fred was at his best during our pressure-packed state tournament games. Discounting the one wherein he barely played (recovering from measles), he averaged 21 points per game, with a high of 29. He set a state tournament record in one contest by making 12 of 12 free throws, a percentage never to be broken — although I kidded him later that a player did so by making 13 of 12.

Nicknamed “Trapper,” I see Fred every workday in the state champions pictures behind my office desk, and will remember him always in my cardiologist’s heart.