When Trashaun Willis, a one-armed athlete from the small eastern Iowa town of Washington, gained national attention a few years ago as videos of his slam dunks in eighth grade circulated online, he was open with his athletic goals.
He wanted to play sports in college. Basketball, football, it didn't matter — he just wanted to be a college athlete.
Now, Willis, who has become a 6-foot-5, 245-pound athlete, has reached his goal.
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The senior recently picked up a Division I preferred walk-on offer from Lamar, an FCS program in Texas. He also holds offers from Division III Loras in Dubuque and NAIA programs William Penn, St. Ambrose and Grand View.
"I feel like I’ve got to keep going," said Willis, who added that he plans to make a decision by the end of January. "My dream’s not complete yet. I want to keep playing and try to make it to the highest level possible."
Even though he was 6-3 at the time, Willis' college athletics dreams from a few years back seemed lofty. He doesn't have a left arm.
He had a condition called amniotic band syndrome while in his mother's womb. One of the fibrous, string-like bands in his mother’s amniotic fluid wrapped around his arm in the womb, stunting growth from just above the elbow downward.
James Harris didn't care. Washington's head football coach saw something special in Willis' rare combination of size and athleticism, and he named Willis his starting middle linebacker as a sophomore. That year, Willis racked up 54 tackles and five solo tackles for loss along with two interceptions, one of which was a pick-six.
As a junior, he logged 47.5 tackles, nine solo tackles for loss and an interception.
And as a senior this year, he recorded 37.5 tackles, eight solo tackles for loss and another pick-six. He passed for 907 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 523 yards and 13 more scores.
"We all see the kid with one arm, but I also see the 6-foot-5, 245-pound athlete," Harris said. "I don’t have a lot of those in Class 3A Iowa, and he hits you with every bit of it. He’s strong and he’s got the lower body. I just knew, as a competitor, who he was. Size is a big deal. Quick twitch is a big deal. And I think, as he made evident, having extreme athletic abilities in other areas certainly served him.
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen
Washington's Trashaun Willis (7) follows a play during a Class 3A varsity football game on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, at Spartan Stadium in Solon, Iowa.
"One of our mantras is 'magic in the work,' and I think Trashaun really epitomizes that. I get to coach a lot of special kids, but he’s just extremely talented. A no-excuses kid. He’s worked for everything he’s got, and it’s awesome when you see that process come to fruition."
Willis' national attention came with responsibility. He was now a role model for other youngsters missing limbs who wanted to compete.
He developed a bond with one such child during in the spring of eighth grade. Jayce Crowder was 5 at the time Willis' story caught national attention. He was born missing most of his left arm, just like Willis. Willis and his mother met up with Jayce and his mother at Washington Middle School, and he gave Jayce a shirt that says: "Ten Fingers Are Overrated." The two have kept in touch ever since.
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen
Washington quarterback Trashaun Willis (7) warms up before a Class 3A varsity football game, Friday, Oct., 4, 2019, at Case Field in Washington, Iowa.
Willis values how he has become a role model, and he knows that responsibility will only grow once he becomes a college athlete.
"I love it. I love feeling like I mean something to people," he said. "I just want to keep inspiring people, keep playing football, keep doing what I love, keep having fun. That’s all that matters."
Willis said most schools recruiting him project him as an outside linebacker who would specialize in the pass rush. St. Ambrose is the only school recruiting him at quarterback.
"(College coaches) just say they like how I’m a big body," Willis said. "They say I can move my hips well and I’m athletic, and that they can’t teach size. And they like how I’m aggressive and I like to fill holes and come downhill. I just put my body on the line."
Harris thinks whoever lands Willis will get a program-changing athlete.
"How does he not add to whatever culture you’re trying to build at your school? He’s a tremendous athlete. He overcomes adversity," Harris said. "Those that say they can, and those that say they can’t, are both probably right. He’s just a kid that always said, 'I can.' He never was worried about what he couldn’t do; he’s worried about what he can do. And I think we all get caught up with that in people and I think there’s a great lesson to be learned there. If you just put your mind to it, you can find a way. Tailor your game to who you are. Soar with your strengths."
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How Trashaun Willis, a one-armed athlete from Iowa, turned college sports dreams into reality