Alum Born Without Arms Uses Feet to Toss Ceremonial First Pitches, Shares Story on ‘To Tell the Truth’
Left and right photos by AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh; center photo by AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Throwing the first pitch at 24 Major League Baseball stadiums is an impressive accomplishment on its own. For a University of Maryland alum, it’s a feat of feet.
Tom Willis ’80, M.Ed. ’88, who was born without arms, uses his foot to fire the ball toward the zone as part of his Pitch for Awareness tour, an effort to strike out stereotypes and showcase how much people with disabilities can do. His audience expanded out of the park when he shared his story this month on ABC’s “To Tell the Truth,” where a celebrity panel had to decipher if he or an imposter was the real first-pitch pundit.
“Just because someone says you can’t do it doesn’t mean you can’t,” Willis said. “People like me, we just find a different way to do things.”
Growing up, that included learning to do almost everything with his feet: writing (he’s right-footed), eating, even driving with a special steering system. Though he never played on a baseball team, he’s always been a sports fan, participating in Frisbee golf, soccer and bowling leagues.
He graduated No. 2 in his class from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., then earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film production and a master’s in educational technology from UMD. After years working as a video producer and communications specialist in D.C. and then San Diego, he launched Tomsfeet Productions in 2002 and began motivational speaking.
His talks garnered media attention, and in 2008, a local cable channel—which happened to be the flagship station of the San Diego Padres—covered Willis’ presentation to students. As Willis tossed tennis balls and Frisbees to the audience to illustrate his unique way of accomplishing things, a video editor noted that he had a “heck of a fastball.”
“I jokingly said, ‘If it’s so good, you guys should get me a first pitch with the San Diego Padres,’” Willis said. “And darn if they didn’t turn around and do it.”
He measured out the 60-feet, 6-inch distance from the mound to home plate—farther than it looks on TV, he quickly discovered—and practiced his technique with a friend, grabbing the ball with his big and second toes, winding up and using a kicking motion to hurl it to the plate. He then took the Petco Park rubber on May 27, 2008, and despite a bounce a couple of feet in front of the plate, Willis was glad his offering made it from the true mound as fans and players cheered.
“It just got such an amazing reception, and I thought, this is possibly a means to an end as a disability awareness effort,” Willis said. “I got back to my seat after throwing that pitch, and I looked at my buddy and I said, ‘You know, I gotta do this at all 30 stadiums.’”
Since then, he’s thrown at parks in every MLB division, notching a strike 11 out of 24 times.
“First pitch today was emotional, remarkable and inspirational,” legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said after Willis’ toss at Dodger Stadium in 2011. “To see him go out there without arms and use his foot and virtually throw a strike from the pitching rubber was really something.”
Willis still has six parks to go, and after taking a few years off due to family matters and then the pandemic, he’s hoping to get back out on the mound this season.
In the meantime, he was able to raise awareness on “To Tell the Truth,” a TV series where three strangers try to convince a celebrity panel that they’re accomplished experts, but only one of them is the real deal. After first trying to fool celebs Amanda Seales, Kevin Nealon and Jaleel White into thinking he was a record-holding birdwatcher, Willis then got to share his actual story on the episode’s “Before You Go” segment and demonstrate his technique with host Anthony Anderson.
“Everyone believed me because I went out there and I really gave it the pitch,” Willis said. “It’s been fun, and it’s nice to know it’s made an impact out there.”
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