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'Handicap' is 'challenge' to Roger Crawford

Most people have their own definition of the word handicapped, and those who go along with the dictionary are probably apt to accept negative judgments in other areas as well, forgetting that almost anything can be overcome.

In destroying this kind of limited thinking, it is easy to find inspiration in the positive attitude and personal courage of Roger Crawford, a 21-year-old junior who is a communications arts major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Roger's parents were once told by doctors that their infant son would never walk.

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Crawford is a self-taught college athlete who played high school football and tennis and still plays college tennis and intramural basketball against material odds that others consider astronomical. Roger does this despite a wooden leg and a right foot that is missing two toes. He also has only two fingers on his left hand and one finger on his right.

And he doesn't just compete; he wins!

Crawford was 9-6 in singles last year as a regular member of the Loyola-Marymount tennis team, where he was often their No. 6 player. Before that he was 47-6 as a singles player in high school, and in 1978 was voted Northern California High School Player of the Year.

''My entire philosophy is that you are only as handicapped as you want to be, '' explained Crawford, whose father once played minor league baseball. ''Everybody has problems to overcome, and in that respect I'm no different than anyone else. In fact, I prefer to think of my handicap as inconveniences.''

''Growing up I had the same interest and desire to compete in organized sports as other kids my age,'' Roger continued. ''The difference was that I had to teach myself how to do everything, because conventional grips and stances just weren't possible for me. One of the main reasons I was successful was because I kept at things until I could do them like anyone else.''

Crawford says the first tennis racket he ever owned had a wooden frame and that its solid-handled construction made it difficult for him to hold, even though he used both limbs. Then one day he happened to be in a sporting goods store and was attracted to a metal racket with an open throat that extended down into the handle.

''When the finger on my right hand just fit through the opening, I knew immediately that this was going to help my control and make me a better player, '' Roger said. ''I use both arms to hold my racket for all shots except my backhand. My chief problem in any sport I've ever tried, because of the missing toes on my right foot, has always been maintaining my balance.

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''I eventually overcame this by lifting weights and by experimenting with the placement of that foot until I learned how to make it do the job for me,'' he continued. ''In my opinion, my best sport has always been football, and if I had been taller (he's 5 ft. 7 in.) I at least would have tried it at the college level. I played defensive end in high school, had no trouble catching the ball, and intercepted several passes.''

Asked about the first time he saw Crawford play, Loyola Marymount tennis coach Jamie Sanchez replied: ''I was aware of Roger's high school record, but otherwise I didn't know what to expect. Actually I was amazed at how well he played, his stamina, and how much of the court he was able to cover. His mechanics were different because of the way he had to hold the racket, but his strokes were crisp and just like any other good tennis player's.

''The foundation of Crawford's game is mental, because he never gives up, seldom beats himself, and almost never gets rattled. I wasn't able to help him much at first because it took me a while to understand his problems. He's tough because he uses every ounce of his ability all the time. He knows he has to. You have to be a good tennis player to take advantage of him.''

Crawford, who until recently thought he might like to become a play-by-play announcer, now says he is leaning toward the TV production side of sports. He has appeared (along with film clips of himself playing tennis) on several network TV shows, including ''Good Morning, America'' and ''You Asked for It.'' He is also scheduled soon for a guest shot on the Merv Griffin show.

''The toughest thing I've always had to handle is the social adjusmtent that constantly occurs when you are not exactly like other people,'' Crawford said. ''I'm conscious of being looked at wherever I go, and I don't mean that in an unkind way. But I do feel I probably make some people uncomfortable.

''I've also had to deal regularly with situations where someone suddenly became interested in me, not for myself, but because I've been on television a few times, and that, to them, makes me a celebrity. To me, that is tougher than anything I've ever found on a tennis court.

''One thing I'm grateful for is that the girl I'm going to marry didn't know anything about me when we met for the first time at a party. In fact, we talked for 12 hours that night and nothing I had ever done in sports or television came into the conversation. When I finally told her a few days later that I played tennis, all she said was, 'Oh.' ''

Because I'm a regular weekend tennis player and wanted to see exactly how good Roger was, I asked him to play a set of singles with me at Loyola Marymount before our interview.

I beat Crawford, but it wasn't easy and I never felt for a second that I was playing anyone with a handicap. I ran him from one side of the court to the other. I lobbed over his head. I purposely made him come to the net, and he did the same to me. More important, we forged a friendship.

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