He went on to earn his bachelor's degree in radio, television and film production from the University of Maryland, as well as a master's in education. He got married — on Oct. 16, 1983, the same day the Orioles won the World Series, he points out — moved to San Diego and eventually retired from his public affairs job with the Department of Agriculture.
He says he "stumbled" on motivational speaking at age 43 and speaks primarily to students from grade school up to college. But researching opportunities to speak to corporate groups, he felt his resume was not quite up to snuff.
"I'd find the guy who climbed Mount Everest in a wheelchair," he chuckled. "Or the person who swam the English Channel who had polio. My experience was working 20 years in a cubicle."
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After the San Diego Padres invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game in 2008, Willis hit on the idea of taking his "pitch for Awareness" tour to all 30 major league ballparks. He's already traveled 53,000 miles on that journey.
"The best part is walking around the stadium after I throw out the first pitch and talking to people," he says.
In Cleveland, he happened to sit in front of a boy of about 17. The kid told Willis in an email the next day that seeing him throw out the first ball was a "life-changing" experience.
"His sister had some kind of birth defect — he didn't say what," Willis says. "But he said: 'We never thought she was going to be able to do a lot of things. But now we know she is.'"
That's the gospel Tom Willis preaches every day.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."