By Dayna Dunteman
Posted on October 26
PHOTO BY JAYSON CARPENTER
Lke many crazes of the early 1970s, tennis announced itself with a vengeance. Jimmy Connors had just begun to make a name for himself, and Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs battled for gender supremacy in an overhyped match televised worldwide to an audience of 40 million. Suddenly, the terry-cloth wristband was the accessory du jour.
Nowhere was the sport more popular than in Danville, Calif., whose clubs and high school teams were factories spitting out state- and nationally ranked tennis players. Tony Fisher, then a high school science teacher and tennis coach, was logging 14-hour days in 105-degree heat teaching summer tennis lessons at the Greenbrook Swim and Racquet Club.
“Unless you had a lesson,” recalls Fisher, 66, of Alamo, a community on the Bay Area’s east side, “you weren’t out on the court; it was too hot.”
That is, until 11-year-old Roger Crawford showed up.
“Several courts down from me, there was this kid hitting balls against the backboard by himself,” Fisher says. “I couldn’t really see him; I couldn’t see his arms or his hands. He had a wooden racquet at the time, and he couldn’t hang onto it. He sort of slid it between his arms and his body. Sometimes the racquet would fly out of his hand and follow the ball. The balls weren’t getting off the ground at all; they were hitting the base of the backboard.”
For five days, Fisher watched the boy repeat this fruitless exercise. On the sixth day, recalls Fisher, “he decided to come over where I was teaching. Some kids were talking to him around the drinking fountain.”
What Fisher saw next made him gasp. The child had shortened forearms, no palms, one finger extending from his right wrist, and a finger and thumb from his left wrist. He wore an artificial left leg, which seemed to work better than his right leg, whose atrophied calf teetered on half a foot, as if on a skate blade. Fisher would later find out that the boy, Roger Crawford, had been born with a rare birth defect called ectrodactylism—and had not, as Crawford was jokingly telling the kids around the drinking fountain, been attacked by a shark.
Long story short: Crawford kept coming to the tennis courts, and Fisher began offering him tips between lessons. Fisher, who owned a tennis store, also found Crawford a racquet he could grip, a new metal Wilson T-2000 whose parallel bars connecting the racquet’s face and handle enabled him for the first time to hook his finger into the space, toss up a ball and serve. The kid had heart and—thanks to his dad, who’d once played semi-professional baseball—the genetic wherewithal to orchestrate a proper collision of swinging stick and hurtling sphere. It was the beginning of a friendship between coach and player that has spanned 30-plus years, and a classic “Hallmark Hall of Fame”-style tale of triumph over adversity. Here was a boy—whose doctors had told his parents he’d never walk—playing tennis! Except Crawford didn’t just want to play tennis. He wanted to win.
After years of constant practice under Fisher’s tutelage (to the point where he wore out his artificial leg every six months, confounding the prosthesis maker), Crawford made Danville’s Monte Vista High School varsity tennis team—one of the top prep teams in the nation—competing with 80 able-bodied players for one of nine positions. His personal record during those four years was 47 wins, six losses, with half of the losses occurring during his freshman year.
Then it was off to college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he not only made the team, but finished his LMU career with 22 wins and 11 losses. Crawford is the only athlete with four impaired limbs to compete in a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I college sport.
He later became the only athlete with four impaired limbs to become certified by the United States Professional Tennis Association as a tennis professional.
Upon graduation, Crawford, a communications major, began casting about for a career path. He took a job coaching tennis and also worked briefly as a sales representative for the Oakland A’s. But he felt restless.
Then Fisher, his old coach and friend, invited him to speak to one of his science classes. Crawford had so much to tell. About determination. Desire. Dreams. There was the story of the day he almost didn’t make the LMU tennis team, staring down the barrel of a top Swiss tennis player’s racquet during a challenge match. Crawford was certain he would be eliminated, that his long-held dream would be squashed as swiftly as Bobby Riggs’ ego after losing the 1973 Battle of the Sexes. So Crawford phoned his old coach for advice—Luke Skywalker mining Yoda for the gold nugget that would get him through the duel.
“Tony,” he said, “how do I play against this guy? Can you give me any strategy on how to beat a clay court player?”
“It’s all about patience with these guys,” Tony told him. “Clay court players usually aren’t all that aggressive. Also, they are not used to long rallies.”
“That sounds good. My confidence is rising again,” Crawford said.
“Well, it should be, Roger. The strength of your game is patience. Hit the ball over the net one more time than the other guy.”
Crawford beat the Swiss player 6-4 in the final set and in that instant glimpsed a future ripe with possibility. Then there were the opponents who didn’t know how to play Crawford, and didn’t know how to feel when they lost. When Crawford, wearing warm-up pants during a match between LMU and Southwest Missouri State, beat his opponent, the loser accepted the loss with equanimity. It was only after Crawford removed his pants that the opposing player moaned, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I mean, I knew about your hands, but now I’ve lost to a guy with one leg? I’m taking the loss a lot harder now!”
To all of these kinds of stories, the audience listened without fidgeting, without exchanging “I’d-rather-be-in-study-hall” notes.
“They were absolutely captivated,” Fisher recalls. “He ended up staying the whole day.” Crawford was invited back again and again, and students began sneaking out of class just to hear him speak. The room reeked of bated breath.
“Roger,” Fisher told him, “I think you’ve got a career.”
Today, the 43-year-old Crawford, a resident of Granite Bay, is a coveted international motivational speaker who in 1996 was inducted into the Speakers Hall of Fame. Material? He’s got more than Jay Leno during an election year, and some of it’s just as funny. Besides tennis, Crawford’s experiences include: carrying the Olympic torch on one stretch of its journey from Athens to Los Angeles in 1984, and writing two books, Playing From the Heart (1989), an autobiography written with Michael Bowker, a frequent Sacramento magazine contributor, and How High Can You Bounce? (1998), a self-help book about resilience.
Crawford’s story appeared in the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book, and he’s been featured on “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition.” A screenplay about Crawford’s life, “Imperfect,” written by actor/writer Bob Saenz, is being shopped around Los Angeles production studios in hopes of becoming a made-for-TV movie.
Talking with Crawford in his brand-new, 4,800-square-foot nest of tile and gleaming cherrywood (with nary a handicapped aid in sight—because there aren’t any), an interesting thing happens: After about five minutes, I forget about his “inconvenience,” as he prefers to call it. And one thing is immediately clear: He takes everything seriously except himself.
“It took me 16 years to learn how to tie my shoes. And then someone invents Velcro!” he quips. Crawford, who bears a vague resemblance to Tom Hanks, is one of those enviable types who move through life buoyed, as if tethered to a copious bouquet of helium balloons. Not that excrement doesn’t happen to him; he could point to any one of a dozen childhood hecklers or his recent divorce from the mother of his 12-year-old daughter, Alexa, which he says was the most devastating event of his life. (“I had to reread my own book.”) But here’s the point, the one Crawford underscores in every one of the 75 to 100 speeches he gives every year: “Challenges are inevitable. Defeat is optional.”
Coming from Anthony Robbins, this might sound like just another slick bromide, something to slap on a book jacket next to his game-show-host mug. But these words have been Crawford’s lifeline since grade school when his parents sent him to his first day of school in shorts, exposing his legs for all to examine—and inevitably, for some to judge. “You don’t live in pity city,” was the parental refrain.
“There were so many people who criticized my parents because of the times they let me struggle,” Crawford says.
“Raising a child with a disability, it would’ve been so easy for them to just shelter me and say, ‘It’s OK, Roger, you don’t need to try because you’re different.’ They didn’t say that. In fact, the message was the opposite. ‘Because you have some uniqueness, you’ve got to try harder.’ Once I accepted that, that was sort of the paradigm I operated from. But what that did was, it helped me build self-trust. It helped me attempt something, fail; attempt, fail, attempt, fail. Finally, I succeeded, and the confidence I built was really important.
I’ve always been curious as to why there are some people who get knocked down and knocked out, and others who get knocked down and come back stronger than before,” Crawford says. “I believe an attitude of resilience, hopefulness and optimism can be learned. We alone choose the quality of our thoughts. In tennis, I realized I wasn’t going to be the fastest or the most powerful, but if I could hit the ball over the net one more time than my opponent, I’d win the point.”
And from a long-ago opponent on the junior circuit who wore designer tennis clothing, drove a fancy car, had three or four tennis racquets to choose from, and therefore appeared frightfully intimidating—but whom Crawford ended up beating—he learned this: Everyone is handicapped in some way; sometimes you just can’t see it.
“My limitations in life have rarely been physical,” he says. “I think this is a basic truth about human behavior, that what disables us most often is self-imposed. In life, we tend to underestimate ourselves, and in the same respect we overestimate others.”
Even if he could have surgery to obtain normal limbs, à la “Extreme Makeover,” Crawford says he wouldn’t do it.
“I told my daughter that one mistake I made when I was younger was that I tried wearing artificial hands. I thought artificial hands would change my life. Well, they did, but not in the way most people would anticipate. The artificial hands felt like a mask. I learned not to spend time and energy being someone else, but to spend it being myself. I think that, if anything, my hands and legs have been a great gift because they have taught me so much. Our level of happiness is not defined by how many doggone fingers we’ve got or whether we’ve got one or two legs. It really isn’t. People say, ‘Is there bitterness?’’’ Well, what do I have to be bitter about? I’ve got nothing to be bitter about. And quite frankly, most people don’t have much to be bitter about. I’ve had such a great life, I’ve got a great daughter, a wonderful family. How many blessings does one guy need?”