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Encouraging The Dream -
Roger Crawford

by Rick Bowers, inMotion Magazine

As the 11 year-year old hit the tennis ball against the backboard over and over again in the 100-degree California heat, his heavy wooden tennis racket would sometimes fly out of his hand and follow the ball through the air.

Though the young boy was clearly struggling, tennis professional Tony Fisher, who was teaching students on a distant court, noticed that the boy returned day after day for five hours a day to hit the ball again and again.

On the sixth day, the young boy walked over to the court where Fisher was teaching and watched. During a break, he introduced himself to the teacher.

Fisher was head tennis professional at the club, as well as a high school anatomy, physiology and biology teacher and coach of the school’s tennis team.

Roger Crawford
“Oh my!” thought Fisher when he reached out to shake Crawford’s hand and found that he didn’t have any. As a result of a rare birth defect called ectrodactylism, Crawford had only one leg, half a food, and a total of three fingers, but Fisher hadn’t noticed until now. He now understood why the boy seemed to be having so much trouble holding his racket. Still, Fisher was impressed with the boy’s tenacity and positive personality, and he immediately liked the child.

This meeting would be the beginning of a more than 30-year relationship for the two men.

Over the next few weeks, Fisher saw something special in the boy and began to teach him how to play tennis. It was difficult, but “each small triumph was a reward that kept me going,” Fisher says. “I was so eager to see what Roger could achieve.”

The teacher’s belief in his student would pay off. After years of arduous straining in which Crawford suffered with blisters on his thumb because of the way he held his racket and sores on his residual limb where it rubbed against his prosthesis, Crawford made the Monte Vista High School team in Danville, California – one of the best high school teams in the country. To get on the team, he had to compete with 80 able-bodied students for the nine positions on the varsity team. In four years on the team, he had an impressive 47 win and 6 losses.

The young man then decided he wanted to play college–level tennis and tried out at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He made the team and, according to Fisher, became the first and only athlete with four impaired limbs to compete in a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college sport and to be certified by the United States Professional Tennis Association as a tennis professional.

Crawford’s unlikely success can be attributed largely to the encouragement he received from his parents and from Fisher.

“I remember my father used to say to me, ‘You don’t live in pity city,’” Crawford recalls. “He was always encouraging me and telling me that no matter what limitation I had that I could do and be more. And that was an important message. I think too often in life, we underestimate ourselves and our own abilities and overestimate others and their abilities.”

The encouragement of his teacher also meant a lot to Crawford’s life. Fisher is not sure why he took such an interest in Crawford, but he thinks it may have had to do with his own battle with dyslexia and being told by a few teachers that certain goals and aspirations were unattainable for him. “In the beginning,” Fisher says, “I just wanted to see if a little boy could get a tennis ball over the net. He was so hungry to learn and to fit in that I couldn’t ignore his spirit and zeal for life. I got caught up in his determination never to give up, no matter how many times he was slammed down by events.”

Everybody wasn’t so encouraging, however. “There were people who discouraged me,” Crawford recalls. “They said, ‘You got three fingers, one leg, half a foot! What the heck are you doing playing tennis?’ And then you’re telling them that you not only want to play tennis, but that you want to play on one of the best high-school teams in the country. And then you say you want to play in college. I knew I wasn’t going to be the fastest so I had to work with that limitation. I wasn’t going to be the most powerful. But, you see that’s not the most important aspect of tennis. It’s hitting the ball over the net one more time than your opponent that wins the match. My strength on the tennis court was tenacity. It was the ability to keep the ball going back over the net, and I believe it was also perspective. And what I mean by that is I just felt fortunate to be able to be out there playing.”

Crawford, now 43 and an in-demand, award-winning inspirational speaker, discourages audiences from being negative and from listening to the naysayers in their lives. “Don’t spend a whole lot of time putting yourself down,” he says, “because there’s plenty of other people who’ll be happy to do it. Finding negative people who will discourage you from your dreams in very easy. You can find them anywhere.”

Crawford, who generally speaks at corporate and association meetings and to major corporations, averages 75 to 100 speaking dates a year and has spoken to audiences all over the world. He’s also been on such programs as Good Morning America and Inside Edition, and he’s been featured in various publications, including USA Today and Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Interestingly, Fisher’s encouragement was instrumental in this aspect of Crawford’s life as well. After Fisher asked Crawford to speak to his high-school anatomy and physiology classes, Crawford was so popular that Fisher asked him to speak again. This time, many additional students came to hear the young man speak. At Crawford’s third presentation for Fisher, the entire school came to hear him.

“Roger, I think you’ve got a career,” Fisher said. That was about 21 years ago, and Crawford has been speaking and writing full time ever since.

“What I’ve been able to do in my life, I don’t think that I have anything unique or special,” Crawford explains. “I just think that I’ve had some drive, I’ve had inspiration, and I’ve had some people in my life, who, when I got knocked down, helped pick me back up.”

Quotes from Roger Crawford

“I think it’s important for every young person whether they have a physical challenge or not to find something in their life that they can become passionate about.”

“People often ask me if I ever speak to groups of disabled people. And my answer is ‘Yes, every talk I give.’ The point is that disabilities come in different forms, including emotional and intellectual, but the most disabling of all is attitudinal.”

“We can control what we dwell on, and I think that is a vitally important principle no matter who we are or what we do. Having a better attitude is a daily choice, and how we think creates the window through which we see our life experience.”

“People have asked me if there were miraculously a surgery that would give me normal hands and normal legs, would I do it? And the answer that surprises people is that I would decline. And the reason is that my hands and legs have taught me so much. They’ve given me the gift of persistence. It took me 16 years to learn to tie my shoes. Then somebody invented VLECRO. Where was he at when I was growing up?”

Roger Crawford has been serving up grand slam programs to audiences throughout the world for over 20 years. As a professional speaker, he works with organizations that want to achieve success despite the obstacles, in order to inspire a winning attitude towards work and life.
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