At a booth in the back of the Frontier Family Restaurant, a diner in the blue-collar town of Washington, Iowa, Trashaun Willis is eating lunch. It is the middle of June, two months before the start of his sophomore year at Washington High School. Using his right hand, the only hand he was born with, the 15-year-old trades off bites of his bacon cheeseburger and swigs of Coke, turning a mundane ritual into a perfectly paced sequence.
For the early part of his life, before he set his sights on playing basketball or football in college, these were the skills he had to master. Eating a meal. Putting on his socks. Tying his shoes. Riding a bike. And, most recently, driving a car.
Born with amniotic band syndrome, a condition in which amniotic bands entangle the fetus and stunt the growth of parts of the body, Trashaun’s left arm ends where his elbow would be—his “little arm,” he calls it.
It’s a condition he shares with rookie NFL linebacker Shaquem Griffin, a similarity not lost on Trashaun.
“The ultimate goal is to make it to college and then hopefully the next level,” Trashaun says. “Whether it’s football or basketball, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I’m playing. I feel like I can compete with anyone on the court or on the field as long as I continue to push myself hard enough.”
Watch the full story of Trashaun Willis…and stay tuned for the surprise ending:
On the football field, Trashaun has found a home at middle linebacker this season after playing quarterback as a freshman. At 6’5″ and 220 pounds, he has the size to play at either spot. On the hardwood, thanks to his build and silky-smooth shooting motion, Trashaun can play almost any position.
It is on the basketball court that the world first learned of him. In 2017, Trashaun dunked in a game as an eighth-grader—a moment that went viral after a flood of national coverage. Almost two years later, college coaches are showing interest in a player who will be celebrated as an underdog because of his “little arm.”
But Trashaun wants no part of that story.
“I refuse to say that I am disabled,” he says. “Because I’m not.”
Jennifer Willis was at work the day she learned her son would be born with only one complete arm. It was a beautiful late-summer day, and she was pregnant with her second child.
Initially, she viewed the call from her doctor as nothing more than a courtesy after her most recent ultrasound. But then her doctor told her the fetus inside her womb didn’t have a left arm.
“It felt almost like a time for mourning because I couldn’t imagine my son going through life with only one arm,” she says. “At the time, I was completely devastated.”
An amniotic band had wrapped around Trashaun’s left arm, limiting blood flow and halting growth of the limb above where his elbow would have developed. As the months passed, Jennifer wondered what life would look like for her son when he was born.
On Christmas Eve that year, Trashaun was born. “He was absolutely perfect,” Jennifer says. “From that moment, it didn’t faze me, and it hasn’t since.”
Korey Williams, Trashaun’s stepfather, came into his life shortly after he was born. He initially felt bad for Trashaun, although those emotions quickly dissipated, since Trashaun seemed not even the least bit impacted. Even still, Williams made it a point to embrace Trashaun’s differences. “I just wanted him to know, even at that age, that he should be comfortable with who he is,” Williams says.
In the years that followed, Trashaun grew just like any other child. But along the way, his family was careful to celebrate each achievement—like the first day his stepfather saw him tie his shoes by himself, an accomplishment that still brings a smile to Trashaun’s face.
By second grade, Trashaun told his parents what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to play professional football or basketball.
The dunk came against Fort Madison in a mostly unoccupied Washington Middle School gymnasium. Trashaun tipped away a pass, gathered the ball, dribbled and then unleashed a dunk, all with his right hand.
His friend and teammate, Zac Stout, saw the moment. And almost immediately, he felt the urge to share it with as many people as he could.
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One-armed dunker, Trashaun Willis, doesn’t allow his condition to stop him from defying the odds. https://t.co/1hv3e8OOVY
The following morning, Stout asked the athletic director at Washington Middle School if he could see if the security camera inside the gym had captured the dunk. Within 48 hours, Stout had the footage and shared it on Twitter.
National news outlets, sports-related and otherwise, asked for permission to share the video. The dunk made it on the SportsCenter Top 10, which prompted the entire basketball team to gather and celebrate the moment as a group.
From that moment forward, the gymnasium was never empty during basketball games—filling up throughout the season. “I just think it was just the idea of an eighth-grader with one arm dunking,” Trashaun says. “It made everyone go crazy, and I certainly enjoyed it. As a teenager, who wouldn’t love that attention?”
Over the weeks and months that followed, Trashaun received letters of inspiration from others around the country who were born with amniotic band syndrome. But 100 miles away, in Des Moines, Iowa, Trashaun’s impact was felt most of all.
Cortney Lewis first saw the dunk on the local news, a moment that brought her to tears. Her son, Jayce Crowder, who was five years old at the time, was born with the same condition, affecting the same arm.
But unlike Trashaun, who says he never struggled with his condition growing up, Jayce began to question why he was different from his friends after he was teased about his arm at Pleasant Hill Elementary School. But when the video appeared, everything changed.
“Seeing that dunk made him understand that there are other people just like him,” Lewis says. “And they accomplish things that I don’t think he thought he could at that time.”
But just knowing Trashaun was out there wasn’t enough. The next hope was that the two could meet.
Although few things about Trashaun surprise the head football coach at Washington High School—having followed him well before he coached him—James Harris is still thinking about the catch he made the previous week in practice.
He stands up from his desk and begins drawing on his whiteboard. With Trashaun playing tight end, the play call had him running a deep post route down the middle of the field. The pass was thrown high and in traffic. Trashaun leapt and used his 6’5″ frame to snag the ball in midair.
“I mean,” Harris says, sitting back down, “he looked just like Odell grabbing that thing.”
Odell Beckham Jr., of course, has trademarked the art of catching footballs with one hand. On the practice field, Willis has a similar reputation as a receiver—creating regular highlights under far different circumstances.
Although much of his life has been spent at quarterback, where he still plays as the team’s backup, Trashaun’s size is being put to use this season on the defensive side of the ball.
While Trashaun was passionate about playing quarterback, he has taken to playing linebacker. The timing of this and Shaquem Griffin’s NFL debut at the same position is not lost on him, although it is not the sole reason he has accepted his new role. For him, it feels like the best place to put his physical gifts to use.
At 220 pounds, Trashaun runs a respectable 4.8 40-yard dash. He’s also a member of the team’s “315 Club,” a small collection of players who can squat 315 pounds. And while he does not do a traditional barbell bench press like his teammates, Trashaun is capable of bench-pressing a 90-pound dumbbell with his right arm.
“He has a disability,” Harris says. “But he is not disabled. What I’ve told my coaches, and what I think is important, is that we don’t impose our own limitations on him.”
Junior varsity basketball coach Nathan Matthes adopted this same mentality when he first met Trashaun before last season. He knew nothing about the player other than he had tremendous size and was coming off an ankle injury playing football.
He was curious what his game would look like with the use of only one hand—curious enough to play his star player in a game of one-on-one with his hand tucked behind his back the whole time.
“I wanted to understand what it was like and how he was able to do the things he was able to on the floor,” Matthes says. Trashaun won convincingly.
When Matthes’ parents attended one of Trashaun’s games, they had the same initial reaction as opposing fans before tipoff. They were curious, perhaps even skeptical. A few hours later, after Trashaun buried a handful of three-pointers, blocked shots and scored points in the paint, they left the gym in awe.
“His jumpers are just so pure,” Matthes says. “I know how this sounds, but I think he could contribute to a college team right now.”
Shortly after his freshman season, the inquiries from colleges began. With three seasons still to play, Trashaun already has heard from Division II and Division III schools. They are not asking the Washington High coaching staff members how they believe Trashaun will fare in college. Instead, the college recruiters are asking about Trashaun’s attitude and work ethic—the same thing they’d ask a coach about any other player.
Trashaun Willis and Jayce Crowder
It is two hours before football practice, and Trashaun is inside the high school gym shooting three-pointers. He lifts the ball up with his right hand, stabilizes it with his “little arm” and sends it airborne. The motion is natural and smooth as he fires off shot after shot.
He is not alone. Chasing him, tackling him and occasionally shooting at the basket is seven-year-old Jayce Crowder, who made the drive from Des Moines to see his friend.
Jayce, like Trashaun, is without the majority of his left arm. He wears a gray shirt with “TEN FINGERS ARE OVERRATED” written across the front in orange text—a gift from Trashaun.
Since the video of the dunk first appeared nearly two years ago, Jayce and Trashaun have spent time together on a handful of occasions. When they first met, knowing Jayce was struggling, Trashaun gave him advice: “I told him we were made this way for a reason. And we can’t let others get us down or feel down about something we cannot control. That he should embrace who he is, because he is special.”
Today, as their parents look on and laugh from the sidelines, the two enjoy each other’s company. Occasionally, Jayce tries to take Trashaun down with a wrestling move—the sport Jayce has only recently picked up.
Two hours go by, and the Washington football team eventually trickles into the gym. Rain has pushed the practice indoors, and Trashaun quickly transitions from one sport to the other.
Trashaun’s hope is that a few years from now, whether it’s through basketball or football, he will find his way onto a college team. And that one day, children around the country will look to him as inspiration, the same way they look at Griffin now that he’s made it to the NFL.
But on this day, being that sort of role model for one seven-year-old is more than enough.