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West Fargo native paints sports heroes

Russ Opdahl is a computer network specialist by day, but in his spare time he has managed to paint over 100 sports portraitures of legendary greats such as Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Kirby Puckett, Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Tiger Woods. The West Fargo native, who graduated from West Fargo High School in 1986, makes his home in Tampa, Fla. with his wife, Jane, and their two children, Aaron, 5, and Kailyn, 2.

He started painting sports idols for his own pleasure, lining his office walls with his favorite sports heroes. But it didn't take long before people started taking notice of his artwork and he began getting requests through word-of-mouth. When visiting in their home, friends would often see a painting hanging on their wall, and ask Russ to do a painting for a spouse or friend as a gift. That led to leads and connections in unexpected places.

Jerry Rostad, from Fargo, who has helped organize the annual auction during the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament for the past 15 years, said he heard about Opdahl's paintings through pure luck. He was talking to Andrew Strasberg, the former vice president for the San Diego Padres, who comes to Fargo to take part in the Roger Maris tournament each year. They were trying to line up memorabilia and items for last year's auction. During the conversation, Strasberg told Rostad about a very talented artist down in Tampa, Fla. Strasberg sent Rostad the artist's email address. The artist was Russ Opdahl. Rostad, who graduated from West Fargo High School in 1980, recognized the name.

Opdahl was commissioned to do a painting of Roger Maris for this year's auction. He also provided two prints to be sold at the auction. Rostad kept in touch with Opdahl, getting periodic updates on the progress of the painting. The completed painting was shipped directly to Rostad a couple of weeks ago, just in time to be auctioned off during the Roger Maris Celebrity Auction on June 21.

Opdahl has also been working on a couple of paintings he is donating to the Roger Maris museum in West Acres, and the Roberto Clemente museum in Pittsburgh, Pa. He has been dealing directly with Randy Maris, son of Roger Maris, and Rusty Papacheck, general manager at West Acres, and curator of the Roger Maris museum.

Opdahl says he paints to relax and unwind. He often has several canvases started at a time, working on four or five paintings at a time, then leaving them sit for weeks before working on them again. It is not uncommon for him to have up to ten unfinished paintings in his studio. Opdahl prefers to paint in acrylics.

"Oils are less forgiving. Most of the time, I work from photos sent to me, preferably poses that have never been seen before to keep them unique," Opdahl explained.

Although his unusual hobby has opened doors, allowing Opdahl to meet and become friends with many celebrities and sports legends, he remains a humble small-town boy at heart. He treasures time he is able to spend with his wife and kids, and tries not to overbook his schedule.

"He never talks about himself. He'd rather talk about his kids and what they are doing," Russ's mother, Linda, claims. "I was as amazed as anyone else when he started painting. He didn't really do anything like that when he was growing up."

Opdahl took art classes in seventh and eighth grade, and was always a doodler, but never considered himself to be artistic when he was growing up. He has never had any formal training, and just picked painting up on his own because of his interest in sports.

Russ's parents, Linda and Al Opdahl, who both retired in 1995, now live near Audubon, Minn. at their lake home. Linda worked for the West Fargo School District as a paraprofessional and secretary for several years, while Al worked for Consolidated Freightways as the terminal manager for Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot.

To see samples of Opdahl's artwork, check out Gametown Heroes Art Gallery at The Tampa artist's paintings have become a big hit with sports fans, gaining national recognition among sports memorabilia collectors. His original artwork is on display at several sports-related venues, including the Mickey Mantle Memorial Exhibit in Houston, Texas.

He has also done several portraits of his children, and considers them his favorite models.