By Kim Constantinesco
Dave Stevens has lived arguably one of the greatest sports stories that you’ve never heard of.
The 50-year-old, who resides in Bristol, Conn., became the first and only person born without legs to play college football and minor league baseball. And he didn’t have prosthetic limbs either. He “ran” using his arms.
Three feet, two inches tall? Doesn’t matter. He tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and the 1984 Olympic baseball team, he pinch hit for Darryl Strawberry, and he won seven Emmy Awards while working for ESPN.
“I don’t want it too sound offensive, but I feel like I’ve lived a Forrest Gimp life,” Stevens said. “If you remember Forrest Gump, he was in all these weird scenarios where he was doing things with famous people. I’ve had those kind of surreal opportunities all my life.”
Stevens has been a trailblazer, but his start in the world could have very easily taken him on a different path.
He was born without legs because his birth mother took Thalidomide, an over-the-counter drug used to treat morning sickness.
“Those days, if you had a disability or something wasn’t right, they could still institutionalize you or put you in a situation where you weren’t able to live in normal society,” Stevens said.
Thankfully, a couple in their early 40’s decided to adopt him immediately after he was born. Raised in Wickenburg, AZ, Stevens developed a passion for sports.
“My parents’ approach to raising me was to never hold me back,” he said. “I think they realized early in life that I kind of had an attitude that I just wanted to be like everybody else.”
All Eyes On Him
Stevens played every sport imaginable growing up, but he became a three-sport athlete in high school. He was a championship wrestler, a lineman on the football team, and a right fielder on the baseball diamond.
He set state records in baseball that still stand to this day, but he considered wrestling his best sport.
“It was just 1-on-1 and I was able to turn my disability into an advantage because everybody with two legs was used to wrestling everybody with two legs,” he said. “No one had wrestled a guy without legs. It took me a while to learn the things I needed to do, but I’m very thankful I had two amazing coaches that really took extra time with me, and thought up moves that would work for me.”
At six-team tournaments, they would shut down the other five mats just so that everyone could watch him wrestle.
His only regret? Not getting involved in the sport until his sophomore year.
As for football, Stevens had to battle the state of Arizona to even get on the field.
“I don’t think anybody without legs had tried to play sports anywhere,” Stevens said. “I had to take all kinds of blood tests and screenings. They couldn’t find anything that was physically wrong with me or that could keep me from playing sports, so they finally had to give in.”
Once he got on the field, he unleashed it all. Linemen didn’t know how to block him, so he would dip right in between their legs and get to the quarterback or the running back, often behind the line of scrimmage.
“The coaches would yank them out of the game yelling at them, ‘You’ve got to block that guy!’ The next play, two guys were blocking me, which freed up a linebacker to come in.”
In baseball, he had a low strike zone, which enabled him to set the state record for most walks in a season and in a career. They’re records that still stand to this day.
“I know coach had a stat that guys who hit after me, hit like .667 or something crazy just because the pitchers were so rattled trying to find my strike zone that after they walked me, it was tough for them to come back and throw strikes,” Stevens said.
Giving It All A Try
Stevens continued with all three sports at Augsburgh College in Minnesota, where he received a scholarship. During his four years there, he even went to Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand to play football for Team USA. In doing that, he was able accomplish one more sports dream: Completing a two-point conversion.
After college at Augsburg, Stevens continued his athletic career while breaking into sports media as a producer, video editor, and reporter. That work launched him into a position as an assignment desk manager at ESPN. While balancing it all, he tried out for the Olympic baseball team, where he was in the same outfield as Barry Bonds. That was followed by a try out with the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins.
“It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all,” Stevens said. “I’ve failed a lot in my life, but the good often outweighs the bad. I could have sat back and said, ‘I should be in a wheelchair, and hang back and not do these things.'”
One of his most enjoyable “failures” came when he tried out for the Dallas Cowboys.
“A mistake I made was being invited to an open tryout and turning down going to a Green Bay Packers camp,” Stevens said. “But, this was in 1991, and the Cowboys were more glamorous than the Packers. No regrets. I did the tryout and got the certificate saying I wasn’t fast enough to make the team. It was a great experience.”
In 1996, he finally inked a contract with the Saint Paul Saints, a minor league baseball team. He played there for three weeks, and not only did he pinch hit for Darryl Strawberry, but he inspired the big leaguer, too.
“Darryl said he wouldn’t have made his comeback in the Major Leagues if he had not met me,” Stevens said. “He said he walked out onto the field and was ready to quit, but he saw this guy without legs. All the media was focused on me. He thought, well, if this guy wants to play baseball this bad, then I need to start trying to get back to the majors.”
Stevens may not be able to climb a fence to make a catch, or run a marathon, but he had opportunities to contribute on the field, playing able-bodied sports.
“The things that are in my realm, I’ve always been able to do,” he said.
And He’s Still Cruising
As his athletic career came to a close, his professional career revved up. He grew up wanting to replace the legendary Howard Cosell. Budding into a content editor at ESPN and winning seven Emmy’s while there, he also covered 15 Super Bowls and six World Series. Today, he works for FiOS1 News, but has aspirations to go full-time as a motivational speaker because he sees a need in the market.
“We’re in too much of a TMZ world right now,” Stevens said. “All we care about is the exclusive scoop of exposing something. We’re not doing enough of the good stories of the people who are overcoming things.”
Had Stevens’ athletic career transpired in the last decade, he likely would have gone viral, locked in a book deal, and who knows, maybe even a movie deal.
“My time has kind of passed me by,” he said. “But, I’m still out on the field and doing things that have meaning.”
Stevens continues to work out with major league and minor league teams for fun. He also plays for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, where he goes up against former athletes and celebrities like Roger Staubach and Snoop Dogg. He’s had two reconstructive surgeries on each shoulder, but the drive to compete still lives on inside of him.
Stevens has been working on an autobiography for the last year, and he travels a dozen times per year, giving inspirational speeches to school children, colleges, and companies.
He has also just joined on with the Dave Clark Foundation, started thanks to the former minor league pitcher who had polio, but still fired the ball from the mound on crutches. The organization holds baseball clinics for disabled children, and Stevens has been a valued coach.
“We partner with minor league teams and get the players to come out,” Stevens said. “I think the parents get as much out of it as the kids because they look and see that their kids are getting a ‘normal’ opportunity. They’re hitting and throwing balls and doing drills with minor league players, and there’s no disability for two hours. They can just have peace of mind that their kids are laughing and playing a sport.”
With all of that going on in Stevens’ life, his number one priority remains raising his three sons, all between the ages of eight and 12, who take after their father as complete “baseball junkies.”
Stevens is living a life he’s passionate about, and in doing so, he’s touching the lives of others.
“You have to walk a mile on my arms to understand what I’ve gone through and what I’ve had to overcome, but we all have those types of things no matter if we have two legs or two arms,” he said. “We all have these things that we have to overcome.”
And, if Forrest Gump was onto something with his shoe logic, you might say, in Stevens’ case, there’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by his arms.
If you’d like to learn more about Dave Stevens, or book him for a speaking engagement, visit Dave’s Impossible Dream.