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When beloved University of Alabama football coach Gene Stallings's son was born with Down syndrome and a serious heart defect, doctors predicted he wouldn't live to see his first birthday and urged Coach Stallings and his wife to institutionalize him. But for Gene and Ruth Ann that was not an option. Johnny quickly won the hearts and adoration of the Stallings family and everyone who took the time to know him, and, proving the doctors wrong by leading an active life, he became a vital and important part of his ...
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When beloved University of Alabama football coach Gene Stallings's son was born with Down syndrome and a serious heart defect, doctors predicted he wouldn't live to see his first birthday and urged Coach Stallings and his wife to institutionalize him. But for Gene and Ruth Ann that was not an option. Johnny quickly won the hearts and adoration of the Stallings family and everyone who took the time to know him, and, proving the doctors wrong by leading an active life, he became a vital and important part of his family, his community, and his father's career. With intimate glimpses of family life and thrilling football anecdotes, ANOTHER SEASON is brimming with poignant lessons about defying the odds and finding joy in every moment.
Every so often Coach Bryant would stick his head in my office and ask, "Say, when are you and Ruthie going to have a little football player?" As Coach Bryant's assistant at Alabama I was used to his occasional razzing. He had a knack for knowing exactly what was going on in a person's head, and I'm sure he must have realized how much Ruth Ann and I wanted a son. I'd get a flustered smile on my face when he'd start in, and I'd reply, "Real soon, I hope, Coach Bryant, real soon." But in the back of my mind I fretted that we might have a family of girls. Make no mistake, our daughters, Anna Lee and Laurie, were my pride and joy, but Ruth Ann and I also were really anxious to have a boy, there was just no question about that.
I'm sure the town of Paris, Texas, where I grew up, was no different from most small American communities in that sports was the main topic of conversation. I remember a pro baseball team called the Red Peppers came to Paris when I was in high school. The whole town rallied around that team, and my friends and I went to most of the games. There must have been one hundred of us standing out behind the bleachers. All of a sudden a batter would hit a foul ball and the people in the stands, sitting up high, would run to watch us as we fought and scrambled to get the ball, just so we'd get a free ticket into the game.
I loved sports and started playing football in the fourth grade. Our teams usually played for the city championship. In fact, I can't remember when I wasn't playing something. In the summer I was getting ready for football, then it was basketball, and in the spring I played golf. I was the captain of every team I had ever been on--both in high school and in college. The fun was always celebrating the wins and talking about the plays after a game. Sports were my life.
And now working for Coach Bryant got me used to the spotlight. When I'd be out of the office, in a restaurant or walking down the street, I'd hear people say, "There's one of Coach Bryant's assistants." Everybody in the state seemed to have their eyes on Coach Bryant, and if you were associated with him, they watched you, too.
One of the keys to his success was that people wanted to please him, and I was no different. When it became evident that he was leaving as head coach of Texas A&M and going on to Alabama as head coach, he called me into his office and said, "Now, I'm going to offer you a job on my staff in Alabama, but if I hear of it before I'm ready to announce it, then you don't have it."
Actually I wanted to run out and shout it from the rooftops. To be able to coach in a place like Alabama, well, that kind of thing doesn't happen very often, especially to a twenty-two-year-old, just out of college. Usually a guy starts out coaching high school and then works his way up. But the only person I told was Ruth Ann, until Coach Bryant made the announcement. I was tickled to death to have such a wonderful job and to be making forty-five hundred dollars a year!
Coach Bryant was in total control, and could he be intimidating! His coaches worked harder than most coaches, and the players practiced longer and harder than most players because they constantly wanted to please him.
Often, I dreamed of the day when my son would carry on the family tradition of playing football. Maybe he'd play for me and for Coach Bryant. There'd be times when I'd look at one of my players, and for an instant I'd see my imaginary son. He'd always be a big strapping boy, and I'd envision him intercepting a pass, tucking that football under his arm, and sprinting for a touchdown. I'd be standing on the sidelines, so proud it would be hard to wipe the smile off my face.
I adored my daughters, Laurie and Anna Lee, three and a half and five years old, respectively. Even if I got home from work late (which seemed to be often these days, since Alabama had won the championship the previous season and we were gearing up for another great fall), Ruth Ann and the girls would wait for me to eat dinner with them. We had our fun little routines; every night before bedtime we always played the simple board game Parcheesi, and I'd find some way to let them win, whether it was positioning my player a few spaces behind what it should have been or rerolling the dice to make certain it was a low number. Often the children would pedal an old surrey that we had bought several years before from a friend, while I'd run alongside. And though I'd never done any carpentry work before, Anna Lee and Laurie persuaded me to make them a toy box, helping me pound nails into the wood.
But I thought there'd be something a little different and special about my relationship with my son. Maybe we'd go fishing together and I'd teach him how to shoot baskets, or maybe we'd go off and watch a team like the Red Peppers and I'd buy him a ticket so he wouldn't have to catch a foul ball in order to get inside the gates. There was no end to what we could share together. Now on this evening of June 11, my dreams could become a reality. Our wish had finally come true.
The next morning I stopped at the florist on the main floor of the hospital and bought a small bouquet of yellow roses, Ruth Ann's favorite flowers. With the bouquet tucked securely under my arm, I strode confidently down the long, narrow corridor of Druid City Hospital, eager to see my wife and son. "Eugene Clifton Stallings III," I whispered to myself as I headed toward Ruth Ann's room. It was thrilling to think that I had a namesake. From the time we first got married Ruth Ann and I had always said that when we had a boy he would be named after my father and me--to carry on the family name.
I put the flowers behind my back as I walked into Ruth Ann's room. There she sat on the bed, her head propped up with pillows. Cards and flowers surrounded her. Even dressed in a drab green hospital gown she looked almost as young as the day I met her, eleven years before, when she was sixteen. My best friend, Gerald Jack, had always talked about his bright, pretty first cousin Ruth Ann. She and I were in a few classes together in high school and I was attracted to her right away. She was outgoing and popular, the editor of the student newspaper, the best French horn player in the state, capturing the All-State chair for three years, and the nicest girl in our tenth-grade class. For the next three years we were sweethearts, going out on dates after football games and helping each other with homework assignments. I suppose we were considered the perfect couple by some folks in town. Ruth Ann was the homecoming queen her senior year in high school and I was captain of the football team. After we both graduated and went off our separate ways to college (I went to Texas A&M, in College Station, and she went on to East Texas University, in Commerce), we kept in close touch, writing letters to each other once a week. She'd often join my parents and come over from Commerce to an A&M football game. She graduated in three years and started teaching elementary school in Bryan, the next town over from College Station. We had wanted to get married before my senior year at A&M.
When I told Coach Bryant of our wedding plans he was adamantly opposed. "If you and Ruth Ann get married before the season you won't be able to live in the football dorm," he said. "You're one of the captains of the team and we need you in the dorm." He didn't have to say another word. Ruth Ann and I got married two days after the final A&M football game, the traditional Thanksgiving game when we played the University of Texas, our biggest rival. My teammates who played with me that Thursday, Jack Pardee, Dee Powell, and Bobby Drake, came to Paris to be in the wedding party. It was especially festive because A&M won the game.
When I looked around Ruth Ann's hospital room and noticed that the baby wasn't with her, I didn't think much about it. The nurses were probably dressing or bathing him. I kissed her and surprised her with the flowers. But she seemed distracted and set them on the radiator without unwrapping them. "Bebes," she began ("Bebes" is what she and all my close friends call me, the nickname my brother gave me as a child when he couldn't pronounce "Baby Gene"), "everyone else in the ward has seen their baby, but they haven't brought ours yet. Would you go out and ask the doctor if anything is wrong?"
Wrong? What could possibly be wrong? Only last night the doctor had popped his head outside the delivery room door and announced to me that we had a fine six-pound-one-ounce healthy baby boy. I had seen Ruth Ann right after she had delivered our son. She had been awake during the delivery and when I saw her, she was alert, ecstatic. I even got a peek at our baby boy through the nursery window, and I'd carried on with the lady next to me for quite a while about how sweet newborns look. That night I had telephoned just about everybody we could think of with the news.
Earlier in the morning I had stopped by my office and passed out cigars wrapped in cellophane with a baby blue band and an inscription that read, "it's a boy!" I'd been saving that box of cigars in my desk drawer for a long, long time. There had been a lot of backslapping and banter. The secretaries, coaches, and assistants were genuinely thrilled for us. Nothing could possibly be wrong. Ruth Ann must not have had much sleep. I hesitated for a minute and then I agreed to find the doctor.
It didn't take me long to locate him in the hallway. He was deep in conversation with some of the nurses. I walked over to him and waited until he finished talking. I felt a bit self-conscious as I asked if there was any kind of problem. "Yes, we think maybe your baby is a mongoloid," the doctor replied matter-of-factly. I was stunned, and then I got so mad at the coldhearted way the news was delivered that I drew back to hit him. I was going to knock that doctor right through the glass partition that led to the nurse's station. Instead I passed out before my fist could hit anything but the floor. It was a terrible shock, the furthest thing from my mind. When I came to, the nurses surrounded me and the doctor offered to talk to Ruth Ann.
I had to tell her, I knew that. I picked up my six-two-and-a-half frame off the floor and slowly headed back to Ruth Ann's room. The word "mongoloid" thundered in my head. It was such an awful-sounding term. Mongoloid. All I could think of was an ogre, or some kind of a monster. It wasn't until years later that "Down syndrome" replaced "mongoloid" as the accepted term.
Posted December 28, 2000
A riveting biography which focuses on Coach Stallings' son, John Mark, who was born with Down Syndrome. Mr. Stallings and his co-author bring to life all the heartaches and joys of raising a child with so many special challenges. I found this to be an especially inspiring and moving book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.