Tom Willis uses his feet to spread his message at Camden Yards and other parks

May 08, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Tom Willis knows all about making the best of whatever life throws at you.

Born with no arms, he's had to make adjustments — about a million of them.

He writes with his feet, for one thing. Steers a car with his feet. Cooks with his feet. He once fed biscuits with his toes to giraffes at the San Diego Zoo, praying the notoriously bad-tempered beasts wouldn't see the toes as dinner, too.

That wouldn't have been good: a guy who uses his feet for everything has one chomped off by a giraffe. But all went well. The giraffe's tongue was the size and texture of a large salami, Willis reported. You probably don't need that info, but there it is.

Oh, and Willis throws a baseball with his feet, too.

He threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Orioles played the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday night, a high strike that began with the ball gripped between three toes and then looped toward the plate with a whipping motion of his leg.

Camden Yards was the 20th major league stop on Willis's "Pitch for Awareness" national tour, which he hopes will highlight the abilities of people with disabilities.

"The main message," he says, "is that I may look different. I may act differently. But it's OK to be different."

After a long career as a video producer, Arbitron executive and communications specialist with the federal government, the 54-year-old Willis makes his living as a motivational speaker these days.

He doesn't begin with a lot of throat-clearing and "Happy to be here" fluff, either. Instead he starts off by firing tennis balls and Frisbees into the audience with his feet.

"And trust me, that gets their attention," he says.

I bet.

"I tell 'em: I can do anything you can do, just differently."

Willis was born in Washington, D.C. in 1959. This was before ultrasound and other imaging tools that could detect birth defects, and the birth of a boy with no arms caused a shock in the delivery room.

The doctors told his parents that there were "facilities" in which a boy with such profound disabilities could be placed.

"My parents said: 'Absolutely not. He's our son and we're taking him home with us,'" Willis says.

His father died of cancer when he was 10 months old. But growing up in Takoma Park, the message Willis received from his mother was simple: "You're not getting any special treatment. You're going to be a contributing member of the family."

He was fitted with a prosthetic arm, with which he was expected to do everything: write, brush his teeth, comb his hair, do chores around the house, etc. But the prosthesis was terribly heavy. Willis started doing everything with his feet, from picking up crayons to swinging a hammer to digging up worms for fishing.

At his high school graduation, he says, "I walked on stage and got the diploma with my prosthetic arm. When I went home, I took it off and never wore it again. I told my mom: 'There's some kid out there who could really use this more than I could.'"

He found a man in Houston who could design a car with a steering wheel on the floor. And that summer, Willis was driving a 1977 Ford Maverick that he steered with his left foot while working the gas and brake with his right. (He's now been driving for 37 years.)

He went on to earn his bachelor's degree in radio, television and film production from the University of Maryland, as well as a master's in education. He got married — on Oct. 16, 1983, the same day the Orioles won the World Series, he points out — moved to San Diego and eventually retired from his public affairs job with the Department of Agriculture.

He says he "stumbled" on motivational speaking at age 43 and speaks primarily to students from grade school up to college. But researching opportunities to speak to corporate groups, he felt his resume was not quite up to snuff.

"I'd find the guy who climbed Mount Everest in a wheelchair," he chuckled. "Or the person who swam the English Channel who had polio. My experience was working 20 years in a cubicle."

After the San Diego Padres invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game in 2008, Willis hit on the idea of taking his "pitch for Awareness" tour to all 30 major league ballparks. He's already traveled 53,000 miles on that journey.

"The best part is walking around the stadium after I throw out the first pitch and talking to people," he says.

In Cleveland, he happened to sit in front of a boy of about 17. The kid told Willis in an email the next day that seeing him throw out the first ball was a "life-changing" experience.

"His sister had some kind of birth defect — he didn't say what," Willis says. "But he said: 'We never thought she was going to be able to do a lot of things. But now we know she is.'"

That's the gospel Tom Willis preaches every day.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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