As an infant, Roger Crawford wasn't expected to be able to walk. Now, the Granite Bay resident is set to receive the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's most prestigious honor.
Crawford will be recognized as the winner of the ITA Achievement Award on Sept. 6 in New York City.
He will be the first athlete with impaired limbs to receive the award, according to Executive Director David Benjamin.
"I think back to being a kid, having a lot of self-doubt and insecurity, wondering what's my life going to become with this physical challenge," Crawford said. "Now, at 52 years of age, to have this great honor, it's just a very special time for me."
Crawford was born with a rare condition called ectrodactylism. It left him with four impaired limbs: one finger on his right hand, two fingers on his left hand, three toes on his right foot and a prosthesis that takes the place of an amputated left leg.
Growing up, Crawford often spent hours at a racket club near his East Bay home in Danville, according to Tony Fisher, one of his first tennis instructors.
Fisher said that Crawford would hit ball after ball against the backboard even after others had fled the courts because of triple-digit heat.
He recalls his first encounter with the then 12-year- old boy. "The only people playing tennis were the people taking lessons from me," Fisher said. "It was just too hot to play, but they felt obligated.
"Everyone else was in the pool behind me except this one kid I couldn't quite make out. I remember thinking, 'What is this crazy kid doing out there?' and, 'Why isn't he in the pool?' "
Fisher eventually took Crawford and his dad over to a tennis shop that he owned. Here, Crawford got rid of his old wooden racket, and purchased a then-new Wilson T-2000 racket a racket designed with an open throat.
Crawford described finding the metal racket as the moment when "the light bulb clicked on."
His right finger slipped perfectly into the two parallel metal bars that made up the throat of the racket. This made it easier for Crawford to have control over the racket.
"It was unbelievable for me," Crawford said. "I thought, 'Wow, I can do this. This is going to work.' "
Crawford said his initial dedication to sport "came from a desire to want to fit in" and "be able to compete with the able-bodied kids just like everyone else."
"I think all of us have that desire," Crawford said. "We want to find something that we want to point to and say, ' I do that well.' "
Crawford played tennis well for two reasons.
First, hitting a tennis ball is often about swinging the racket with the upper body. Since Crawford did not have a full set of fingers, he often used his arms and shoulders to perform routine tasks, strengthening those parts of the body, as he explains in his autobiography "Playing from the Heart."
More importantly, though, Crawford had the discipline to put the work in at practice, Fisher said.
"When you're on the tennis court, it's all about action and reaction," Crawford said. "You have to practice so many times, so you establish that muscle memory, which will see you through those pressure-filled times."
Crawford eventually competed on the Monte Vista High School tennis team, where he amassed a 47-6 record as a singles player.
He attended junior college in Concord, and then was recruited to play Division I tennis at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"He was a very good tennis player," said Jamie Sanchez, the LMU tennis director.
Sanchez said even if he was not the most talented player on the lineup, Crawford understood what the game is fundamentally about: keeping the ball in play.
In college, Crawford started speaking to high school students about the power of resiliency, drawing from his experiences in tennis. His main message was removing self-imposed limitations while accepting actual limitations.
Today, he takes his message all over the world as a motivational speaker at major corporations like General Motors, AT&T and IBM.
"There's certainly some endeavors that I might try in life that just wouldn't work because of my hands and my legs, but I think that's true for a lot of people," Crawford said. "We have this tendency to want to fix our weaknesses, and we neglect our strengths. I think it's important that we focus on our strengths."
The ITA Achievement Award is given each year to one former collegiate tennis player who has applied the skills they learned on court to their chosen profession, according to Benjamin. Previous winners have included scientists, senators and university presidents.
Crawford has been a finalist since 2003, Fisher said.
"I think over time the association really learned to value and appreciate Roger's accomplishment in the field that he went into, which is motivation," Sanchez said.
Crawford will be recognized at the International Tennis Hall of Fame Legends Ball and watch a session of the U.S. Open from the President's Box. He will also receive a Rolex watch and a $1,000 donation for his alma mater, LMU.
"I'm sort of wondering how I'm going to keep the watch on with my hands," Crawford said.
Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.