Ask Roger Crawford to consider his life without tennis, and he hesitates.
“I almost can’t imagine it,” the 56-year-old motivational speaker says. “So much of my life is connected to it, that it seems like without tennis there would be this huge void.
“Even if I’m not on the court, I’m relating back to the experience of being a tennis player.”
Tennis is more than just a sport for Crawford. It became part of his identity the first time he picked up a racquet as an 11-year-old in Danville, CA.
Born with a birth anomaly called ectrodactyly, Crawford has only one finger on his right hand and two on his left. He’s also missing his left leg below the knee and two toes on his right foot. With a prosthesis for his leg, he wasn’t a prime candidate for a sport that requires a firm grip, balance and footwork.
But Crawford was raised by parents who didn’t believe in coddling their firstborn son. “You don’t live in pity city,” his father would tell him.
Giving little thought to his disability, Crawford fell in love with tennis the first time he saw players hitting at his neighborhood courts. In his mind, there was only one barrier to entry: he needed a way to hold the racquet with the one finger on his dominant right arm.
Enter the T2000.
“I walked into the tennis store and it was like the holy grail of racquets for me,” Crawford says of the steel frame manufactured by Wilson in the 1960s and ’70s. “Cinderella had the shoes, I had the T2000.”
The racquet’s narrow, elongated throat provided a space where Crawford could wedge his finger. On his forehand, he learned to hold the frame against his right elbow with the fingers on his left hand, and he adjusts the racquet face by rolling the grip against his forearm.
He didn’t develop his unique technique overnight. A self-described shy kid, Crawford spent hours hitting against his “best friend,” the backboard. Then he began working with a local pro.
Soon Crawford’s results were reflecting his newfound sense of belonging and purpose. He started to compete against abled-bodied players as a teen, tallying a 46–7 high-school record. When he went to college at Loyola Marymount University, the coach gave him a spot on the roster, making him the first NCAA Division I athlete to compete with a four-limb physical challenge.
But he wasn’t just competing—he was winning, thanks to a relentlessness that became his biggest weapon.
“When an opponent saw me for the first time, I believe their initial thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to explain it if I lose to this guy with three fingers and a missing leg?’” Crawford says with a laugh. “In many ways, I benefitted from the fact that people underestimated me.”
As a child, Crawford would confidently tell curious peers that his missing fingers, toes and leg were the result of an alligator attack, or some equally harrowing freak accident. As an adult, he’s maintained that lighthearted, matter-of-fact approach. Even so, he’s human. Bad days are inevitable.
“Have I shed a few tears? Have I wished at times that my hands and legs were different? Sure. But all of us go through experiences like this,” he says. “Whenever we face something in life that looks like a tremendous obstacle, there is tremendous opportunity.”
It wasn’t long before Crawford realized that he had found his opportunity. In college, he would occasionally speak to children at inner-city schools. His disability and resulting determination affected people everywhere he went, and motivational speaking eventually turned into a full-time career. He’s spoken at conferences around the world, made TV appearances and authored three books.
“I’ve really cherished the feeling that I’ve inspired folks,” he says. “Speaking to audiences, sharing a little of my experience, has had an impact in people’s lives. For me, that’s a special gift.”
Would he change his physical limitations if he could?
“That would mean I would have to give up what I’ve learned from the experience; the incredible blessings I have because of it. I wouldn’t do it.”
And that, Crawford says with no hesitation at all.
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.