I’ve only been around Coach Gene Stallings a few times, but the more I’m around him the more I appreciate who he is. He’s always gracious with his time, he doesn’t have to be. He’s always patient with average questions and I find his answer is almost always better than my question.
Though he had a lot of success in football, he’ll mostly be remembered for leading Alabama to its 12th National Championship in 1992. He still gets back to Alabama from time to time, like he was this week talking about and raising money for children with special needs.
The story is that when Gene Stallings and his wife got their son John Mark Stallings, the doctors came out and told Coach Stallings that his son was born with Down syndrome. The next thing Gene Stallings remembers was waking up with nurses hold smelling salts to his nose. He says he and his wife cried like babies when they heard the news. Remember, this was almost 50 years ago. All children born with what today we call “special needs” were referred by other names and weren’t given much of a chance of leading productive happy lives. Gene Stallings told me that once they got over the initial shock; a love affair began that lasted for 46 years. Gene Stallings and Johnny, as he called him, were together nearly all the time.
I talked to Coach Stallings this week about Steve Skipper’s latest piece of art entitled “Bama’s Biggest Fan”. The portrait is of Coach Stallings and John Mark both smiling ear to ear. It was painted from a photograph at an Alabama practice. Their faces clearly show how happy they were together and that was almost all the time. You can see the picture and buy a print if you like by visiting www.anointedhomesart.com
John Mark Stallings died in August of 2008. He’s buried near Coach Stallings home in Texas. Coach told me that what he misses most is bedtime. When he used to tuck John Mark into bed, Johnny would always say; “What me and you gonna do tomorrow Pop.” It didn’t matter what the plans for the next day were. Some days it would be an exciting trip to an exciting event. Other days it might be a haircut, or hauling hay to cattle or working in the garden. It didn’t matter to John Mark. All he cared about was what was him and Pop gonna do. Coach Stallings told me that and then said, “Yeah, I miss him.” I know he does.
Coach Stallings thinks life has worked out like it ought to. He would worry if he had died first and left Johnny behind. He felt it best that Johnny went first. I’m told folks with special needs children feel that way too. John Mark Stallings put smiles on many faces during his life. He’ll be remembered as kind and innocent and joyous in life. Gene Stallings reminds us to love people as they are. He reminds us not to underestimate folks just because they’re different than we are. Being around him these days is a big deal.
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