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December 20, 2012

John Mark Stallings left mark on Tuscaloosa

TUSCALOOSA | Gene Stallings made an impact on the University of Alabama football program. John Mark Stallings left a mark on the soul of a community.

John Mark, the late son of the former UA coach, was born with Down syndrome. His presence during his father's tenure raised awareness of children with developmental disabilities and touched countless Alabama fans.

"The 1992 national championship was the impetus for the entire country to see how integral Johnny was to his family, the players and to his many friends," said Martha Cook, director of the Rise Program, which is housed in the Stallings Building on Johnny Stallings Drive. "While he could not read and could only write his name, he became an icon because of the many gifts he did have. His social skills and memory skills combined to make him have thousands of friends.

"His image was revered and he was a role model for us all."

As much as Johnny Stallings, who died in 2008 at age 46, touched the community, he was touched by Alabama football.

"It was very important in his life," his mother, Ruth Ann Stallings, said. "It gave him something that he was familiar with that he loved and it gave him the chance to be part of what his daddy did, and his daddy was very important to him.

"That gave him something to be so proud of and to have a conversation with people about. That was one topic he knew a lot about, and he loved to talk to people."

It was at the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama won the 1992 national championship, that Johnny Stallings won hearts far and wide. Photos of him walking with his father in the Superdome end zone after a practice, and of him hugging and kissing his mother during the game, made him a national figure.

After the game, when players and reporters and others were gone, the good son made his way to his father.

"Good job, Pop," he said.

And just like players and coaches, the younger Stallings got a national championship ring.

"Johnny had no use for many material possessions," Cook said. "He did treasure the championship ring. He put it on first thing in the morning and did not take it off until he went to bed, every single day.

"After his death, the ring remained on his finger. No one would take that memory away from him."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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