John Mark Stallings: 11 June 1962 – 2 August 2008
Johnny Stallings died yesterday in Paris, Texas. He had Down syndrome and and a lifelong heart condition. He was a hero to some people, not because he was the first and probably only person with Down syndrome to be awarded a superbowl ring, but because he brought out the best in people. At least that seems to fit country music’s definition of a hero.
Your heroes will help you find good in yourself
Your friends won’t foresake you for somebody else
They’ll both stand beside you through thick and through thin
That’s how it goes with heroes and friends -Don Schlitz & Randy Travis
John Mark was the son of fabled American football coach Gene Stallings who coached Alabama’s Crimson Tide to a national championship and was an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys for a superbowl win. Some people might see Coach Stallings giving credit to his son with Down syndrome for part of his success as mere patronizing sentimentality. As the father of a son with developmental disability myself, I can’t dismiss it that easily.
Stallings (1997) book, Another Season: A coach’s story of raising an exceptional son, written with the help of Sally Cook, details how his son changed him and his family in powerful and positive ways. It is book that I’ve recommended many times to fathers just coming to grips with the reality of having a child with a significant lifelong disability. It is a book that has helped some new father of children with disabilities embrace the experience, rather than flee from it. There are lots of books by mothers talking about how this changed their lives but very few for fathers, and some dad’s seem to need to hear a story told by a sports legend before it begins to sink in.
As an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan as a kid in New York, I cannot forget Roger Kahn’s incredible bestseller, Boys of Summer (1972), a book that transcend sports, telling how the boys of summer who made up the great Dodger teams of the 40s and 50s grew into men later in life. The story of pitcher, Carl Erskine, who also had a son with Down syndrome tells a similar story of personal growth.
So, in some ways, John Mark Stallings life was ordinary. He faced challenges, showed some courage and good humor, stood by his family and friends, and brought out the best in the people around him. If his dad had not been a famous football coach, we would probably never have heard of Johnny Stallings… but he still would have been a hero.
Because his father told the story of being “transformed in Tuscaloosa,” his story became very public, and help to bring out the best in lot of other fathers, too. So, when we remember Johnny Stallings the public hero, we can remember the many other lesser known heroes who have helped change the lives of their families and friends for the better.
((This video doesn’t have captions, some of the workshop scenes are not great, and it has software label over part of it. But it does show Gene Stallings talking about his son, and how it changed him. “I’ve said this a lot of times. If I could change him and have perfectly normal child or take John Mark, I’d take Johnny every time.” Although this video was made more than 15 years ago, it does in some ways foretell his death. ))
John Mark Stallings was only expected to live a few years, but he survived to reach the age of 46.