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Viral video helped young boy find his perfect role model

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/12/2018 Matthew Bain
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DES MOINES, IA - Jayce Crowder began noticing last winter that he looks different from his classmates at Pleasant Hill Elementary School.

They have two hands.

He has one.

It started when one boy teased him, said his mother, Cortney Lewis. Jayce’s bubbly enthusiasm soured to sullenness. He'd return to their Des Moines home from kindergarten with questions: Why am I different? Why me? Why? 

"He actually told us he was mad at God for making him that way," his mother said. "That was a huge dagger to the heart."

Lewis admits she didn’t know what to do at that point. How could she provide answers to her son's questions when she never found those answers herself? 

Help was 110 miles away in eastern Iowa. 

After a full day working as an orthodontic assistant, Lewis came home and turned on the TV news. This night, there was a story about an eighth-grader from Washington, Iowa, Trashaun Willis, who was an internet sensation for his slam dunks. 

And Willis was missing most of his left arm, just like her Jayce. She cried tears of joy. 

Trashaun Willis, left, of Washington, Iowa, and Jayce Crowder, of east Des Moines, pose for photos together during their spring meeting at Washington Middle School. © (Photo: Courtesy of Cortney Lewis) Trashaun Willis, left, of Washington, Iowa, and Jayce Crowder, of east Des Moines, pose for photos together during their spring meeting at Washington Middle School.

"It’s really hard to explain. It was like an instant connection," Lewis said. "I knew I never met his mom or his family at all, but I instantly felt connected."

She called Jayce in to see Willis on TV, too.

"Cool," Jayce remembered thinking, with a shy giggle. "I saw him dunking on TV."

At the time, it seemed like this would be an inspiring moment for Jayce: An opportunity to see a role model born with the same congenital defect thriving with, and fully accepting, his reality. And that would’ve been OK with Lewis.

After all, there’s no way Jayce would be able to meet Willis, right?

Last year, Willis was a 6-foot-3 boy with baby fat still rounding off his edges.

Now, he’s a chiseled, 6-foot-5 young man. Before breaking his ankle this fall, Willis dominated competition as the quarterback on Washington’s freshman team. And he’ll likely be a standout on the basketball court this winter. 

His life looks a whole lot different, too.

Willis’ story blew up last winter. The Des Moines Register wrote about him. Bleacher Report tweeted about him. NBC Nightly News flew to Iowa to interview him. Just recently, Sports Illustrated named him one of its SportsKid of the Year finalists.

"I’m the same old Trashaun," Willis laughed in an October interview, sitting off to the side of Washington football practice.

Although national media coverage has cooled in the past nine months, attention in Willis’ hometown hasn’t faded one bit. His role in the community has blossomed since his dunks went viral.

"The young kids, they look up to him," said Dave Watson, Willis’ pastor at Washington First Assembly. "And they’re just like, 'Wow, if he can do that, so can I.' One of the kids in our school is in the special education program, and as I was going around with him, he’s like, 'Wow, did you see Trashaun (dunk)?' And I’m like, 'Yeah.' And he’s like, 'He only has one arm. And he plays football. He’s a starter. If he can do that, so can I.'

"He gives hope to people that just don't feel like they could ever do it."

Willis’ inspiration isn’t limited to Iowa, either. Sam Kuhnert, co-founder of Illinois-based NubAbility, a nonprofit dedicated to coaching kids with limb differences, said he’s the kind of young man who will be a role model for kids across the country. 

But, for now, there’s one kid in particular who has Willis as a hero — and best friend: Jayce.

Little did Lewis know last February, but a family friend texted the Register after it wrote the story about Willis. The friend asked if there were any way Willis could meet Jayce, and that it would go a long way to helping him build confidence.

The idea was broached to Willis’ middle school basketball coach, Mark Berhow, who then talked to Willis and his parents. The family said they'd be honored to meet Jayce. 

"We were so excited about this," Willis’ stepdad, Korrey Williams, said.

Willis and Jayce met at Washington Middle School on a Saturday afternoon in April.

The two share a common story. Both had amniotic band syndrome in the womb, a rare condition where strands from the mother’s amniotic sack wrapped around their left elbows and stunted growth beyond that point.

Jayce’s parents learned he had the condition during an ultrasound. It was the same one where they were told they were having a baby boy.

As soon as introductions were done between the boys in April, the two bonded like "two kids in a candy store," Williams laughed.

They shot baskets. Willis taught Jayce to finish with a high release and backspin. He gave Jayce a shirt that says, "Ten fingers are overrated." They rode bikes around the hallways. They took plenty of photos. They played a lot of hide-and-seek. Jayce thinks he won.

"Because I hide very good," he said, clutching a signed basketball Willis gave him that day.

Willis also got serious with Jayce. He talked about their left arms — or lack thereof. He told Jayce he was perfect the way God made him. He said to not let anyone drag him down, and that words don’t need to shake his confidence.

"It reassured me," said Cortney Lewis, who became friends with Willis’ mom, Jennifer Williams, and regularly texts her for advice. "I know in my heart that everything’s going to be OK, but it reassured me that, I mean Trashaun’s grown up to be a wonderful kid. And I know, at some point, Jayce is too. It’s just inspiring to watch and see where he’s at in life. It’s going to be OK. As a parent, that’s all you want to know: that everything’s going to be OK.

"Now, we have a lifelong friend."

Jayce said he was happy after meeting Willis.

"Because he stands still," he said. ("He means 'stands tall,'" Lewis added with a smile.)

Jayce was then asked what he’d say to Willis if they were together right now.

"You’re the best person ever."

Why?

"Because he’s my friend."

Six months after their April meeting, Willis beamed whenever Jayce was mentioned. He never knew what it felt like to be a role model.

Turns out, he loves it. His relationship with Jayce makes him look forward to assuming that role now and in the future with more kids like him. Perhaps as a youth coach with NubAbility. He hopes to go Division I in football or basketball, and he embraces the associated responsibility to kids looking up to him.

"Honestly, it means a lot to know that I changed his life. And I hope I did," Willis said. "I never really thought that that would happen. I never thought it’d go this far. I just thought a few people would see (my dunks). My friends would just see it and be like, 'Oh, he dunked it!'"

Since that spring meeting, Lewis said she’s also seen a pronounced difference in her son, who is now 6 and in first grade. He recently started wrestling with ICE Performance Training Center in Altoona. He loves it so far. 

"He definitely talks about (Trashaun) all the time," she said. "He calls him, 'my friend.' 'You know my friend Trashaun, mom?' 'Yeah, I know your friend Trashaun.' 'You know he was born just like me?' 'Yeah, he was born just like you, Jayce.' So it has made a difference.

"It’s made him understand that there are others like him and it’s OK to be different. Just to stand tall and understand that it’s OK."

Earlier in the family interview, Allyssa, Jayce's 10-year-old sister, asked him if he was proud to have one arm.

"Yes."

"How proud? On a scale of 1-100?"

"100!"

Eventually, the October group interview ended. Jayce ran to a basketball hoop in the cafeteria with his dad, Ben Crowder, Allyssa and his Willis-signed ball. He practiced some of the bounce passes Allyssa had recently taught him.

Then, he lined up for a shot. High release and nice backspin, just like Willis taught him.

Swish.

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