Gene Stallings was old school as a player and coach. In his years of coaching, he was an assistant to some of the great coaches of his or any day – Tom Landry and Paul Bryant. Born in Paris, Texas, he was recruited to play at Texas A&M. He was one of the ‘Junction Boys’ who survived Bear Bryant.
Football has always played a big part in his life, but there was much more. He married Ruth Ann Jack after college graduation. Five children were born to the Stallings – four girls and a son. Their son, John Mark, was born with Down syndrome. That wasn’t exactly how it was supposed to play out. Stallings wrote: “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.”
In a cold, matter-of-fact manner, the doctor who delivered the little boy answered the worried father’s question: “Is there some kind of problem?” The response: “Yes, we think maybe your baby is a mongoloid.” Angry enough to hit the insensitive physician, Stallings sank to the floor in a faint. When he recovered, he made the slow walk to his wife’s room to tell her the bad news. They were understandably devastated.
It was 1962; ‘mongoloids’ were monsters. People with Down syndrome were retarded. They were laughed at, ridiculed, avoided, ignored. Stallings had known a boy with that syndrome growing up in Paris, Texas. He and his buddies had made fun of him unmercifully. Now his son would be subjected to the same treatment.
They were going to name their son after Gene’s father to carry on the family name. They decided instead to give the boy a biblical name – John Mark Stallings. Still reeling from the news, they were told that their child also had a serious heart defect. With the challenges he faced, he probably wouldn’t live very long.
John Mark did die – not in a few days or a few years. He lived 46 years. He accompanied his dad to practice fields and stadiums, cheering on the teams his dad coached. He helped his dad as Gene Stallings became an advocate for the developmentally disabled. With the ever-present smile on his face, he lived life. One said of him, “He had a way of lighting up a room.” Another wrote: “There weren’t any lives John Mark touched that weren’t made better by his influence.”
There is no such thing as an unimportant life. Ask Gene Stallings. Celebrate life, every life. That’s what John Mark did. You can read more of the story in “Another Season – A Coach’s Story of Raising An Exceptional Son”.