Each year former Alabama Football Coach Gene Stallings returns to Tuscaloosa for two days of golf. There are teams competing in morning and afternoon rounds for two days and the result is a tremendous boost for the Rise Program, which is about helping mentally challenged children and young adults.
This is a cause that is dear to the hearts of Gene and Ruth Ann Stallings and anyone who knows them and their son, John Mark Stallings. Johnny, who was born with Down syndrome, was with his father at the tournament. The night before the start of the tournament both were on hand at the Stallings Center for the dedication of the Johnny Stallings Playground.
It was also heart-warming to be greeted by parents of the children. The parents were on many of the holes, serving as volunteers, and they expressed their appreciation to the participants
The first year of the tournament we put together a team of former Alabama player Tommy Brooker, Ben Shurett (who is now publisher of the newspaper in Fort Payne), former Tide radio color man Doug Layton, and myself. That team continues intact, usually winning nothing more than a photograph with Coach Stallings. (And last year we got a note apologizing because there had been some sort of glitch and our photo didn't come out. I told Coach Stallings we wanted to make two photos this year since we broke the camera last year, and -- sure enough -- we got two photographs.)
Our team played Thursday afternoon, and Coach Stallings took some time for a few private words with Doug Layton, who is going through a gut-wrenching family situation.
It was also the first opportunity I had to show Stallings the cover of a book to be released in August. He seemed pleased with the cover of "What It Means To Be Crimson Tide–Gene Stallings and Alabama's Greatest Players." We had spent a good bit of time in January and February working on the foreword he writes in the book. He told me he wanted an autographed copy, and I told him I wanted one autographed by him, too.
Athletics Director Mal Moore also spoke to our foursome and to Doug privately. On a lighter note, Mal was reminding us that his team was "defending champion" (none of us could remember) and said his team had turned in a 10-under-par score in its Thursday morning round. We were in the Thursday afternoon group.
In 2004 we started on hole number one. And, as Shurett rememered it, "That is where our round began to unravel." We were three-under-par and well back in the pack last year.
One feature of the Gene Stallings Tournament is that volunteers monitor each hole to take the score-keeping responsibilities off the competitors. As it turned out, our team was very grateful for this format.
If we had been keeping our own score, no one would have believed it.
We started on number 9 and birdied the first six holes we played (including an unlikely chip-in by Brooker). After three pars, we ran off another run of four birdies and finished with two more in the final five holes. Twelve under par! No one had a better score than 59 and when handicaps were figured in we finished second in the afternoon round.
Our last hole, number 8, was where Stallings spent all of two days, hitting a tee shot on the 135-yard par three and then putting out with the group. He greeted us warmly, maybe because he knew that we had started on 9 and his day was nearly done.
We had planned ahead for our putt. In a scramble each player takes a shot. Thanks to an excellent shot by Shurett, we were very close, perhaps six feet away for birdie. Layton told Stallings, "Kirk has been leading us all day and his putts have really helped us get the line." And I put down a ball, lined it up, and putted. The ball went everywhere. It was a trick ball someone had given me. Stallings seemed to enjoy the frivolity and tried a few putts with the ball.
The tournament attracts a number of Coach Stallings' friends from his days in Tuscaloosa, as well as members of the athletics department. (Basketball Coach Mark Gottfried played in front of us last year, but was absent this year in order to be on the road recruiting. Football Coach Mike Shula was expected to play Friday, though most of the assistant coaches were also involved in recruiting.)
Anyone wishing to contribute to the Rise program may make checks payable to Rise and mail to Stallings Center, PO Box 870305, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487.