By Susan Schindehette
February 02, 1998 12:00 PM

The stadium is silent on this chill, gray afternoon, serving only as backdrop to a poignant tableau: A tall, rugged-looking man, revisiting the scene of so many triumphs, walks hand in hand with his grown son as they amble across the playing field, apparently oblivious to anything but each other. “The whole relationship between Coach and Johnny, well, it somehow just lifted up the spirit of the whole team,” says Mike Crocker, a student-equipment manager of the University of Alabama football team, surveying them from a distance. “And everyone really, really misses them.”

A year after leaving his post as head coach of the Crimson Tide, Gene Stallings is remembered not only for the national championship he brought the team in 1992 but also for the powerful and affectionate bond between him and his only son. Thirty-five years ago, Johnny Stallings, the third child in a family with two healthy daughters and two more to come, was born with Down syndrome. At the time, children with his disability were often shunted aside, institutionalized as a family’s unspoken embarrassment. There was little public information available about rearing a child with Down syndrome, and special-education units in America’s public schools were neither as common nor as sophisticated as they are today. But Stallings, now 62, long ago came to believe that his son’s affliction was in some sense a gift. “Johnny has given us love—total, unconditional love—and joy,” he says. “And what we thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to us turned out to be a true blessing for every single person in our family. He’s been the cement that’s made us so close.”

As described in Stallings’s recent memoir, Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son, cowritten with former AP reporter Sally Cook, this was a realization that came only slowly, emerging from sadness and heartache. Initially, Stallings had no desire to revisit the painful memories surrounding Johnny’s early years. “Neither my wife, Ruth Ann, nor I really wanted to relive all those disappointments,” he says. “But we were finally convinced that a story like ours needed to be told.”

The story began in Paris, Texas, where Stallings—”Bebes” (from his older brother’s mispronunciation of Baby Gene) to friends and family—grew up to be captain of the high school football team in 1952. Four years later he was captain again, at Texas A&M, coached by his future mentor Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If I had it to do over, I’d have paid a little more attention to my studies,” says Stallings. “But football was all I thought about.” He even postponed marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ruth Ann Jack, until after his final game in senior year, against Texas.

Two years later, Stallings, who had followed Bryant to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa as an assistant coach, had two healthy daughters—Anna Lee, now 41, and Laurie, 39. “Everything was going well,” he says. “I had a great job, two sweet little girls, and when Ruth Ann got pregnant again we made no secret of the fact that we hoped for a boy.” The reason, says Ruth Ann, was simple enough: “My husband was a coach. And more than anything, I wanted to give him a son who would play football.”

But on June 11, 1962, when she gave birth to a healthy 6-lb. baby boy, the Stallingses’ idyllic life suddenly began to unravel. When the proud father, carrying yellow roses, came into his wife’s hospital room the next day, they wondered why no one had brought in their infant son. “I asked the doctor if there was a problem,” Stallings recalls, “and instead of taking me aside and sitting down to talk with me, he just answered in this cold-hearted voice, ‘Well, we think your baby may be mongoloid.’ Just like that. It was such a shocking, terrible word. I was so angry that I was ready to hit him. Instead, I passed out, right on the floor. It was the most painful moment of my whole life.”

Two months later chromosome tests confirmed what had been suggested by Johnny’s smallish head, slightly slanted eyes and poor muscle tone: He had been born with Down syndrome, a random genetic condition that occurs once in every 800 to 1,000 live births and results in slowed physical and intellectual development and increased risk of heart and gastrointestinal problems. Gene and Ruth Ann were told that Johnny would never sit up or walk, and that their best option was to send him away to a state institution for the retarded.

“You cannot know what it was like then,” says Ruth Ann Stallings, 62, her tears welling up at the memory. “We didn’t know anybody who had a child like this. There was almost a shame about the whole thing, as if you had done something terrible.” Ruth Ann thought her life as she had known it was over. “In a second all your dreams shatter,” she says. “I remember telling Bebes that I would take care of Johnny and the girls, but there was no way I could ever be happy. I no longer felt like a blessed person the way I always had.”

Worse than their initial trauma was the young parents’ growing sense of isolation. At a Christmas party at the university athletic department when Johnny was six months old, another baby his age was bounced from lap to lap, while Gene and Ruth Ann sat alone in his office, holding their limp son in their arms and pretending to be having a conversation. “For the first time in my life,” Stallings writes in his autobiography, “I felt different from almost everyone I knew.”

Still more chilling was the way strangers—and even friends—regarded their son. Ruth Ann recalls how hurt she was when she didn’t hear from Coach Bryant’s wife, Mary Harmon, after Johnny was born. Later, Mary Harmon admitted she had driven by the Stallings house many times but couldn’t bring herself to stop and visit because she didn’t know what to say. “With other children, people would say, ‘Here, let me hold your baby,’ ” says Ruth Ann. “I wanted people to kiss our new baby, but no one wanted to touch Johnny.”

As time passed, the Stallingses not only weathered their early crises with Johnny but began to discover that along with their frustrations came an unexpected sense of fulfillment. By the fall of 1962, when Stallings was helping to guide an Alabama quarterback named Joe Namath to stardom, he was also managing to rush home in time to give his son a bedtime bottle. “I felt that Johnny needed me,” says Stallings. “And I discovered that I needed him too.”

Johnny’s needs were not always so easily met. “Those first 10 years were the hard ones,” says Ruth Ann. “A bottle could take hours; potty training took five years. All we had was Dr. Spock—and instinct.” The family, which by 1970 had grown to include two more daughters, Jacklyn, now 33, and Martha Kate, 27, did the best it could by Johnny. Ruth Ann and the girls taught him to write his name, tie his shoes and ride a bike. And even the smallest of victories—the time, for instance, at age 3½, when Johnny finally took his first teetery steps on the back patio while holding on to the family dog—began coloring Stallings’s personal and professional attitudes. “I developed a whole lot more tolerance for the less gifted,” says Stallings, who in 1965 was named head coach at Texas A&M. “If a kid wasn’t big or strong enough, but gave his all, I let him be on the team to do what he could.”

In 1968, Stallings’s Southwest Conference championship team won the Cotton Bowl over Bear Bryant’s Alabama. Johnny was making similar strides. In 1972, at a time when special-education classes were becoming more available, Johnny, then 10, was finally enrolled at a public school in Dallas. There he learned to cut paper, color and even play Softball. And in the following years—after Stallings had been fired from A&M in 1971 and then switched to the pros, first as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, then as coach of the St. Louis Cardinals—Johnny found his niche as an unofficial member of the team, helping to tape players’ ankles and ice their feet. He would play cards with them in the locker room and entertain them by imitating their moves on the field. Beyond that, says Stallings, Johnny’s presence “brought something special to every team I coached: the simple message to do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

In 1979, Johnny took part in the Special Olympics; eight years later he and his father appeared in a United Way public service announcement that made him a local celebrity. But Johnny’s verbal and reading abilities weren’t what they might have been had he been exposed to intervention programs early in childhood. To help ensure that other children with Down syndrome don’t suffer the same fate, Stallings, who returned to Alabama as head coach in 1990, now is a partner in Tuscaloosa’s three-year-old Stallings Center, which ministers to 100 children under the age of 5 with disabilities that include cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Stallings, who contributed speaking fees to complete the building, “used to come over and spend time just to escape,” says the center’s director, Martha Cook. “The children love him, and I think he’s one of the heroes of the world.”

Alabama football fans would likely agree, given Stallings’s 70-16-1 record over seven seasons. But in 1996, after Alabama’s last-minute win over archrival Auburn in the final game of the season, he regretfully resigned, in part because Johnny, who suffers from a cardiac defect that affects nearly a third of all children with Down syndrome—and today can usually be surgically corrected during infancy—could no longer keep up the pace. “He would cry hard when the team lost, and he was walking more slowly,” says Stallings, “and, well, it just seemed the right time.”

Today, their football days behind them, Johnny and his father ride horses, fish and do chores on the 600-acre Texas cattle ranch the family bought back in 1969. “There’s no doubt that they have a special relationship,” says Ruth Ann. “Johnny was just always drawn to his daddy.”

And his daddy to him. At noontime on the ranch, while Ruth Ann and her daughter Laurie, who lives next door, prepare dainty food for a ladies’ luncheon group, Stallings stands up and throws his arm around the shoulders of the only other man in the room. “Let’s go out and get some hamburgers and fries,” he says with a wink to his son. “And get us away from all these women.”


GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Tuscaloosa and Paris