Great Sorrow For Crimson Tide Family

It was midway through the 1993 season at Ole Miss when I finally realized that John Mark Stallings didn't have worries. The Alabama football team had gotten out of its game with the Rebels when I ran into John Mark and Ruth Ann Stallings leaving for the team bus.

Alabama was defending national champion and undefeated (though having had a tie against Tennessee) and ranked fourth in the nation. Those are nerve-wracking games.

"Were you worried, Johnny?" I asked.

"Johnny doesn't worry," Ruth Ann said.

And no one really worried about John Mark, either. His family, most visibly his famous father, Gene Stallings, made John Mark a part of Alabama football, and he was one of the most adored by Crimson Tide fans.

John Mark Stallings died early Saturday morning. John Mark, who was born with Down syndrome and suffered from health problems related to a congenital heart defect, was 46.

I last saw Johnny a few months ago when I Coach Stallings had his golf tournament at Ol' Colony in Tuscaloosa. That tournament is among many ways that the Stallings family has helped make the Stallings Center and RISE one of the nation's finest facilities for those afflicted with Down syndrome.

I told him it was good to see him again and told him who I was and he said, "I know you. It's good to see you, too."

Johnny loved his "Pop," and Coach Stallings loved telling everyone that Johnny didn't think the coach was nearly as important to the success of the football team as was the trainer. Johnny enjoyed being around the training room.

When he was born, he was not given the chance of a very long life. From time-to-time there would be a crisis, but until this last one Johnny had always pulled through.

Many aspects of the Alabama athletics department have been named for donors. A few years ago the Stallings family was in Tuscaloosa as the Alabama equipment room was named in honor of John Mark Stallings.

I have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Coach Stallings. I was the only media member who attended his first Alabama practice and his last one in Tuscaloosa, and after that last one -- when I was the only one there -- we went into his office and just chatted about a fine seven years.

Later I was honored when he agreed to be a part of a book I wrote, "What It Means To Be Crimson Tide -- Gene Stallings and Alabama's Greatest Players."

"I've known John Mark Stallings his entire life," said Mal Moore, Alabama director of athletics. "I want to extend my deepest sympathy to Coach Stallings, Ruth Ann and the entire Stallings family. For someone who never played or coached a game, I think John Mark may have touched more Alabama fans than any other person ever did. I would like to thank the Stallings family for sharing their love for John Mark with all of us."

John Mark's story, detailed by his father in the book, "Another Season", served as an inspiration to millions.

"I had a whole lot less tolerance for the gifted and a whole lot more tolerance for the guy that wasn't quite as gifted," Gene Stallings told a reporter in January of 2008. "With Johnny, I saw him struggle to walk, struggle to kick a ball, struggle to do everything that he did. So, I had a little tolerance for the guys that had to struggle. If you had talent and didn't lay it on the line, I didn't have much tolerance for you. The less talented guy can't play on Saturdays. But he can get you ready to play on Saturdays. I wanted the guys who played on Saturday to have an appreciation for that guy who got them there."

Funeral arrangements for John Mark Stallings are pending and expected to be announced Sunday afternoon.

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