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
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
|“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.
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
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
“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
“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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