By John Goralski
Wayne Chopus seemed to leave his feet at the crack of the bat, and a gasp washed across the crowd as he backhanded the ball at shortstop, pirouetted in the air, and completed the play with a perfect strike to first base. There was no surprise when Chopus was named to the all-tournament team at the ASA slow pitch softball national championship in 1969.
There probably would have been a riot if they left him off the list.
Rick DiBiasi, a former Blue Knight varsity athlete and assistant coach, can still vividly remember that shortstop grab after almost 50 years. “I don’t think anyone had ever seen a play like that before in softball,” he said. “Eight thousand people stood up and applauded because it was one of the best plays we’d ever seen. Walt Marek, who’s in the hall of fame, was our first baseman. Dick Lorenzo was the second baseman, and he looked in amazement to see that Wayne threw that guy out. It was incredible.”
For those that have seen Chopus in action, it’s no surprise that he brought so many people to their feet on a small diamond in rural Ohio because few athletes have treated fans to as many spectacular moments in so many different sports. Chopus was a three-sport athlete in high school, a two-sport athlete in college, and he’s played his way into different halls of fame for baseball, basketball, and slow pitch softball.
If there was a ball and someone was keeping score, Chopus was probably on the winning team.
“He was just a great, three-sport athlete,” said DiBiasi. “He was a tremendous hitter, a tremendous fielder, and he was a whole lot speedier than you ever thought he was when you looked at his frame. In basketball he was a good passer, a great defensive player, and he had a good jump shot. He could put the ball down and stop on a dime to get an open shot. He did it all.”
Chopus wasn’t setting out to be a star athlete when his family moved him to Southington as a 10 year old. He wasn’t bred to be a college star when Chopus walked onto the high school fields in the early 1960s. Sure, Chopus dabbled in the Little Leagues and local football leagues as he was growing up in town, but it was the backyard battles and pick-up games that set the foundation for everything that followed.
“I always thought I was pretty good, but I was always following my brother and his friends and they were very good,” he said. “I was only 10 years old, but these guys were 15, 16, or 17. That’s a big difference in age, but they played baseball so I was right there with them playing. It was mostly back yard stuff. Football wasn’t like it is now with Rec Park and Memorial Park. We had a Pop Warner thing, and I played that. If you played basketball it was at the Y, and of course we had the Little League for baseball.”
But Chopus was bitten by the bug. All summer, they’d play baseball games on a homemade field where Spring Lake Village now lies. He’d practice his pitching in his back yard with a make-shift target attached to a chicken coop in his back yard. During winter, he’d march through the snow with his friends to clear basketball courts with shovels just to pass time on the weekends.
“It was really competitive. We played a lot, and I think that’s what it takes to be good,” he said. “If you didn’t have enough guys to play, you’d just cut the field in half. You’d have a pitcher, an infielder, and an outfielder. I think that’s where I learned my infield skills. I had to cover from third base to second base. Your instincts take over, and you get that quickness. You have to learn how to figure out where the ball is and how it will bounce. Those pickup games really prepared me.”
It didn’t take long for his classmates to notice the up-and-coming athlete. By the time he reached junior high school, Chopus was one of three eighth graders recruited onto the freshman baseball team. This was his real introduction to organized sports, and he took it by storm.
“It wasn’t very different. I think we just transitioned from sandlot,” he said. “Baseball is baseball. You swing the bat. You catch the ball, and you throw the ball.”
The following year, he added basketball and football to his resume, and by the time he reached the high school he transitioned easily into the varsity game. Over the course of his baseball career, Chopus shifted seamlessly from infield to outfield to the pitching mound—mostly as a reliever. Chopus graduated with a .310 batting average and a 14-4 record on the mound, but it was his consistency that set him apart.
He was lights out in the field, and he walked only 19 batters in his varsity career.
“That’s the way he approached everything he did,” said former SHS baseball coach John Fontana. “You would never see him being wild. You’d never see him go crazy. He was just consistent at everything he did. That’s the thing about him. It didn’t matter if it was basketball, baseball, or football. He was so consistent.”
That consistency and versatility helped propel Chopus onto the gridiron as the starting quarterback in 1964, and he helped rally the Knights to a perfect, 9-0 record. The lineup was peppered with all state players like Vinny Clements and Pete Mongillo, but Chopus was the glue that kept them all together. He ran for two touchdowns. The threw for eight, and he orchestrated a final drive in an early upset over Pulasky High School that set the stage for Southington’s perfect season.
“He was so steady,” said former SHS football coach Joe Orsene. “He wasn’t always the most spectacular, but he was so steady at quarterback. He had a good arm. He called all the plays, and he ran the offense really effectively. He did his job, and he did it very well.”
As good as he was during the spring and fall, Chopus played at a different level in the winter. Chopus worked his way into the basketball starting lineup during his sophomore season, and he anchored the Knights as a junior and a senior. In the days before the three-point line, Chopus managed to score 610 career points. He scored 29 point games in two different seasons and began to draw the attention of college scouts.
He signed on to play at Quinnipiac College where he says he ‘stopped for a cup of coffee,’ before he settled into the first varsity basketball lineup at Mattatuck Community College in Waterbury. Over the next two seasons, Chopus paced the team to a pair of 18-win seasons and finished his career with 914 points, six individual records, and varsity letters in basketball and baseball.
Chopus was among four athletes recognized in the school’s first hall of fame class in 1988.
“We were a very good team,” he said. “We had a good cross section of players. We had some guys from Waterbury, Meriden, and Southington. It was a very special time. I enjoyed my two years there, and I met a lot of nice people.”
After graduation, Chopus was recruited once again—this time to play on one of the most elite softball teams in the state. Chopus went on to play for 18 years, and his teams rallied to eight state tournaments, five regional tournaments, and a pair of national tournaments. His lifetime batting average was .580, and he was named to the national all-tournament team in 1969 with a batting average of .710.
“That was big-time softball,” he said. “I bet you that we played 100 games in the summer. Sometimes it was double headers, but we played a lot. I started out locally with those guys I grew up with. We used to play in the town league, but I eventually played with Ciccio Homes out of Plainville, and they were the elite team.”
Once again, Chopus found his way into the league’s hall of fame where he was recognized for his efforts in 2000.
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Chopus as a member of the Class of 2014. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, Meade will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. It will be the fourth hall of fame for the Southington star.
“He certainly belongs in the hall of fame,” said Fontana. “If you needed a shortstop, he could play there. If you needed a second baseman, he could play there, too. If you needed an outfielder or a pitcher, it just didn’t matter. He was a hell of an athlete. That’s why he could play so many sports.”
Chopus said that he was excited to be on the list of honorees. “This is the pinnacle. I’ve done a lot of things, but this tops it off,” he said. “It’s great to know that people from Southington recognize us. I just hope that when somebody mentions my name, people say that they knew me, I was good, and I played the game the way it was supposed to be played. I played to win. I played hard, and I didn’t worry about injury.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.
By John Goralski