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.
"I've been coaching a whole lot longer than they have been playing, but it's a players' game," Stallings said. "I'm just happy they bailed me out."
In an effort to create a family atmosphere, there is a chapel service before games and a Thursday-morning breakfast session with seniors only. Stallings basically has only three team rules.
"He expects us to do what's right, always be on time and not to wear hats in the building," said defensive end Eric Curry. "He's a players' type coach who can get the best out of a player."
But Stallings can be tough. He suspended star receiver David Palmer for three games after Palmer was arrested twice on charges of drunken driving.
"From my relationship with John Mark, I have learned to listen to my players more, provide more of a family environment," Stallings said. "I have also learned to be more tolerant of the less gifted, but also less tolerant of the gifted that are lazy.
"I know winning is important at Alabama, but Bear Bryant didn't win them all. This is a game, not life and death. I've got children of my own. It's not like I haven't been through any little crisis from time to time."
In Bear's tracks
There's the Paul W. Bryant Hall, the dormitory where Alabama football players sleep. There's the Paul W. Bryant Museum, next to the Paul W. Bryant Conference Center, which sits on Paul W. Bryant Drive, a couple of blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium. There are three other campus buildings named after Bryant.
The legend of Paul"Bear"Bryant (they pronounce it as one word in Tuscaloosa) still lives at Alabama, except that now it wears a houndstooth halo. Visit any local mall and you can buy a life-sized portrait of Bryant -- prices range from $400 to $1,000. There are Bryant postcards, Bryant coffee mugs, Bryant videos.
But, unlike his two predecessors, Stallings is not intimidated by it all.
"First of all, you have to know what Alabama football is about, andit's about Bear Bryant," Stallings said. "He is the standard here, and everybody gauges you by him. I have no problem with that. I am not Bear Bryant, can't be Bear Bryant and can't coach his style. But, in my opinion, you have to hold on to what he left here. I wish I could consult with him."
Bryant, who retired in 1982, left Alabama with a 232-46-9 record in a 25-year career at the school. He won six national titles and 13 Southeastern Conference titles. But his formidable ghost was too much for successors Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, who won one SEC championship in their combined seven years.
Perkins (32-15-1 in four seasons) lacked the charm of Bryant and left for the NFL in 1986. Curry had the personality and a 26-10 record in three years, but not the bond with Bryant. Curry was a former Georgia Tech player who committed one of two unpardonable sins at Alabama: He never beat Auburn.
He left for Kentucky after last season. That was after a rock was thrown through his window.
"Ray Perkins had a matter-of-fact approach, and he ruffled a lot of people's feathers. He always walked around with steely eyes," said Matt Coutler, who has covered Alabama football for 12 years for WERC-FM radio in Birmingham, Ala. "He even took down Bear Bryant's tower [the other unpardonable sin].
"Curry was well-liked, but he was an outsider, and that caused a lot of second-guessing. He once admitted that he didn't know the importance of playing Auburn. When he did that, his career went downhill."
Simply put, the Alabama faithful wanted someone who played for the Bear, looked like the Bear, who coached under the Bear, talked like the Bear and had pictures of the Bear in his office.
Stallings fit all the criteria, especially with the tweed sport jackets and the low-wwwwwww, slowwwww voice with the country twang. After he was hired, Stallings hung in his office two pictures of him and Bryant together and brought in two former Bryant assistants, Mal Moore and Bill Oliver, to run his offense and defense.
His final stamp of approval came when he beat Auburn in his first year, after an 0-3 start. Stallings is 3-0 against Auburn.
"I have never tried to imitate Paul 'Bear' Bryant, but when you were around him as long as I was, some of it rubs off," Stallings said. "I just try to be Gene Stallings."
Ellis Porch, 74, a retired doctor and alumnus of Alabama from Arab, Ala., said: "I've been a longtime follower of Alabama football, and I knew Coach Bryant very well. We don't think Gene Stallings is the second coming of Bear Bryant, but we wanted someone to bring back the good ol' days of Bear Bryant, so we could reminisce."
A winning formula
Bryant believed in stopping the run. Stallings' Alabama defense is ranked No. 1, allowing 55.0 rushing yards and 139.2 passing yards per game. Bryant believed in a ball-control rushing attack. Ditto for Stallings, whose team is averaging 208.9 yards on the ground.
It was Bryant's formula for success. It will be Stallings', too.
"You look at all the great coaches, all the great teams. They all had intimidating and physical defenses," Porch said. "Gene feels that if it's good for coaches like Lombardi, Bear Bryant and Landry, why not him?"
Bill Curry has to get some credit for Stallings' success, because he recruited most of the current players.
Defensive ends John Copeland and Eric Curry are the best in the country and possible first-round NFL draft picks. Linebackers Antonio London (61 tackles) and Derrick Oden (65 tackles) are two of the team's top tacklers, and cornerbacks George Teague and Antonio Langham have made the big plays.
The defense has bailed out the offense several times this season. Stallings is conservative on offense, and quarterback Jay Barker doesn't throw unless he needs to. The Crimson Tide's biggest offensive weapons are Lassic (905 yards on 178 attempts) sweeping left and right out of the I formation and Palmer (24 receptions, 297 yards).
"When Coach Stallings came here, he took the best athletes and put them on defense," said Curry. "He got the motor revved, told us to be relentless and just go out and smack people. That's what we do. I wouldn't want to be the quarterback who plays against us on Saturday afternoons."
Topic of conversation
Dreamland is a restaurant on a hill in an isolated area west of downtown Tuscaloosa. The dining room is no bigger than a shack. Jimmy Johnson has eaten there. So have Joe Namath, Hank Williams Jr. and some guy named Cucumber Howard.
The menu consists of ribs, bread,water, soda. The specialty is conversation about Alabama football.
"This is the place to come after games," said John Bishop Jr., co-owner with his father. "Some of the most knowledgeable people about Alabama football come here."
The subject is Stallings.
"I always thought that Gene Stallings could coach, despite what a lot of other people said about him when he first came to town," said Mike Miller, an electrician from Birmingham. "He may have gotten off to a rough start, but the good ol' boy is starting to fit in."
Stallings laughs. He always has had to prove he was head coach material. He was 27-45-1 at Texas A&M.; He later had a 23-34-1 record in three years as head coach of the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals.
"At Texas A&M;, it was tough winning at an all-male military academy during the Vietnam War, and the Cardinals, well, they're just the Cardinals, if you know what I mean," said Moore, the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator.
But Stallings has done well in his first three years at Alabama, and, in the past six months, has erased the doubts about his ability to coach and lead the program.
In that time, Palmer has been arrested twice. Stallings also had to listen to Georgia defensive back Ralph Thompson's charges (he later recanted) that Alabama officials offered him a car and cash to come to the school. Remember, too, that former Crimson Tide star Gene Jelks said he received payoffs from Alabama boosters and coaches before Stallings arrived.
Stallings has worked through all of this, and still his team is undefeated. He also has drained the state of its blue-chip players, no longer having to share second billing with rival Auburn, which is in its own transition period.
"I guess I feel a little vindicated," Stallings said. "But people saying that I couldn't coach really didn't bother me. I knew the X's and O's of football, and I knew I could handle people. I knew I could recruit. I knew I could coach."
Then Stallings tells a story:
"I ducked into a bathroom of a restaurant on a Monday morning following the Mississippi State game, which was a close game. A man followed me in and asked: 'Who called the plays in the third quarter? Well, I'll tell you one thing, The Bear would never have done that.'
"You know, I've said Alabama fans love Coach Bryant and tolerate the rest of us. But even if we were 10-2 right now, I'd be happy. Things are working out quite well, and that's good to say."
Then he thinks for another second, laughs and says: "Johnny gets in that thing [golf cart] and drives it all around the field. He may run into things once in a while, but he loves that golf cart. We just couldn't be any happier here."