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Life Goes On for Stallings : His Son, John Mark, 30, Has Down’s Syndrome, but He’s Still ‘Main Man’ to Alabama Coach

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like a lot of coaches’ sons, John Mark Stallings is often around his father on the football field.

John Mark sees many Alabama practices from the sidelines and watches most of the Crimson Tide’s games with his mother in the athletic director’s box.

It’s been that way all week as No. 2 Alabama prepares for the Sugar Bowl and will be that way tonight when the Tide takes on No. 1 Miami.

Gene Stallings, the Alabama coach, says he doesn’t usually glance up at his son during games.

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“I’ve usually got a lot of things going on in my mind when I’m on the field,” Stallings said.

But those may be the only times that John Mark is not first and foremost in his father’s mind.

“You know, it would’ve been a tough question if you’d asked me back then what we would’ve done if I’d known my only son was going to have Down’s syndrome,” Stalling says. “I’m just glad I didn’t know.

“Because I’ve been blessed by John Mark. No matter what happens, I wouldn’t trade what I’ve had with him for anything else.”

Not that Stallings would have said that on June 11, 1962, the day John Mark was born.

At first, Stallings did not want to accept the fact that his son had a problem. Stallings insisted that there must be some mistake, at least until a doctor bluntly said it was so. “When they said that, I passed out,” Stallings said. “The next thing I knew, I was on the floor and six or eight nurses were around me.”

At that point, Stallings and his wife Ruth Ann faced a difficult decision that a lot of parents in their situation deal with: what to do and how to handle it.

“He was part of our family and we would raise him the best we could,” Stallings said. “We could keep him warm and healthy and make him ours.”

For how long, no one knew. Down’s syndrome occurs when a child is born with an extra chromosome in each cell. Children with the condition are mentally impaired, but are able to live happy, active lives.

Kids with Down’s often do not live past their teen-age years, although some live into old age.

John Mark is 30 now, and Stallings gets a little sad when he admits that his son is “slowing down a bit.” Heart problems often are associated with Down’s.

Still, John Mark is a constant source of pride and inspiration for Stallings, who proudly calls his son “my main man.”

“He’s got a one-way ticket to heaven,” Stallings said. “There’s not a mean bone in his body.”

They did a United Way commercial a few years ago when Stallings was coach of the NFL’s Phoenix Cardinals, and the ad was one of the most popular ever.

Now, whether they are riding horses at the family’s farm in Paris, Tex., or going to their favorite Mexican restaurant in Tuscaloosa, they are always together.

“I’ve had the best of both worlds,” said Stallings, 57. “I’ve had four daughters and John Mark. “I’ve been able to see my girls grow up, meet nice boys and go through all of their various stages.

“John Mark has had accomplishments, too. Oh, they might not seem quite as big to some people. But they’re just as meaningful, and they’re equally enjoyable to you as a parent.”

Among those who understands that best is Mike Sullivan.

Sullivan is one of two Alabama state troopers assigned to escort Stallings at all games. His son, Christian, 22, also has Down’s syndrome. “These kids are smart,” Sullivan said. “They can do more than most people think. In Johnny’s case, he verbalizes very well.”

Stallings has learned a lot from his son, too.

“I think John Mark has made me more tolerant of players with lesser abilities who try hard, and less tolerant of the players with more talent who don’t give their best,” he said.

Tide quarterback Jay Barker has heard that before, in various forms.

“One of Coach’s favorite expressions is, ‘John Mark could do that!’ ” Barker said. “If someone messes up, Coach might point over to John Mark on the bench and tell the player, ‘He doesn’t have the gifts you have, but he’s always trying.’

“To see coach and his son, it gives you a real warm feeling. You can see the bond they have and their love.”

John Mark helps his dad in other ways. For instance, he has an ability to remember names far better than his father can.

“Once he puts your face and your name together, he’ll know it forever,” Stallings said and grinned. “I can’t do it. There are a lot of times when I’ll see someone I know and I’ll nudge Johnny and say, ‘What’s the name of that lady’s son?’ and he’ll look up and tell me.”

This week at practice, while he was sitting on the bench sipping a soda and talking to a trooper and some of Alabama’s reserves, John Mark stopped and studied when he was introduced to someone new.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, smiling and extending his hand. “I’ll remember you.”


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