Stallings values success, but treasures son more THE BEAR'S HEIR SUGAR BOWL -- Alabama vs.Miami -- Friday, Channel 13, 8:30 p.m.

December 30, 1992|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — John Mark Stallings, the only son of University of Alabama football coach Gene Stallings, has Down's syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by moderate to severe mental retardation and slow physical development. Doctors said John Mark wouldn't live to be 4.

Then they said he wouldn't make it to 11.

John Mark will be 31 on June 11.

So don't worry if you didn't send Gene Stallings a Christmas present last week -- he's already received the perfect gift.

"Children with Down's syndrome are living longer than they used to," said Stallings. "Some of them are making it to their 50s, but usually they have heart problems. John Mark has a heart problem, too, and problems walking. But I try not to think about how much time he has remaining. I just appreciate every day we have together.

"Every Christmas we spend with John Mark makes it a little bit more special. Our family spirits are always high because of him. John still believes in Santa Claus, and he's always the first one down the stairs."

John Mark has traveled with his father here, where No. 2 Alabama (12-0) is preparing for the USF&G Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day against No. 1 Miami (11-0) to decide the national championship.

"John Mark isn't really worried about the national championship. He's more concerned about seeing New Orleans," Stallings said, laughing. "He's heard a lot about the city. That's what I love about him. He's so innocent. There isn't a mean bone in his body. He's got something you and I don't have, a one-way ticket to heaven."

The relationship between Gene and John Mark is extraordinary, one that changed Stallings' perspective of football.

Stallings, 58, was born in Dallas, where football is next to godliness. He learned the sport from the late Bear Bryant, first as a defensive end at Texas A&M and later as an assistant coach for seven years at Alabama.

The football climate was even more intense in Alabama.

"Men wanted to have boys who played football at Alabama or in the [Southeastern Conference]. That's the way it was," said Stallings. "I felt the same way."

The Stallingses already had two girls when John Mark was born six months after Alabama won the 1961 national championship.

Finally, a boy.

"I knew one day he would be playing major college football," Stallings said. "But, a day after John Mark was born, Ruth Ann [Stallings' wife] wondered why all the other mothers were given their babies, and they had not given us John Mark yet.

"I called the doctor, and he said they thought John Mark was a Mongoloid," Stallings said. "The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor with about six or eight nurses around me giving me smelling salts."

Gene Stallings went through months of denial, getting more opinions from doctors. The diagnosis was always the same.

Reality settled in when doctors recommended that John Mark be institutionalized, a practice that Stallings said was common 30 years ago.

"That's when I think we decided we were going to raise him and be proud of him," said Stallings. "If we were going to the country club, John Mark was going. When the girls brought home dates, we weren't going to hide him. We wanted to make his life as normal as we could."

Feeling at home

John Mark loves to walk around the family's sprawling house, built near the Alabama campus. And he rides the horses at the family's 600-acre cattle farm in Paris, Texas.

He likes to play golf and fish. And go to church. He bowls once a week and has a room filled with stuffed animals. He thinks he is the team trainer, attending practice and always carrying a bottle of water.

Some Alabama alumni brought him a golf cart to get around the practice fields and cattle farm.

"From what I know, everywhere Gene has gone -- Dallas, Phoenix and here -- John Mark has been accepted," said Hootie Ingram, Alabama's athletic director. "You can see it's a joy for Gene to be around him.

"And Gene has shown his good will throughout the country. Every city we play in, he's visiting a hospital the day before a game. I think he visits the hospital in Tuscaloosa daily. I told him he might as well get a minister's parking pass."

That wouldn't work. Stallings doesn't like to be considered special. That's reserved for John Mark, his family and players.

And, in regard to his players, Stallings has mellowed. He's not the fiery head coach who paced the sidelines at Texas A&M from 1965 to 1971. He listens to his players and sometimes gives in, against his better judgment.

Recently, late in the third quarter with Alabama facing fourth-and-two at the Tennessee 3-yard line, Stallings refused to call for a field-goal try that would have given the Tide a 20-3 lead.

His players wanted to go for the touchdown.

The gamble didn't pay off. Tennessee cornerback Steve Session stopped Derrick Lassic for a 1-yard loss, helping turn the momentum temporarily in the Volunteers' favor and putting the outcome of the game in doubt. Alabama hung on for a 17-10 win.

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