Gene Stallings Had Kicking Answers

Alabama football fans have been educated to understand the importance of the kicking game. With the Crimson Tide having lost all of the specialists from the 2009 national championship team, there is something of a microscope on the potential replacements for placekicker Leigh Tiffin, punter-holder P.J. Fitzgerald, snapper Brian Selman, and return star Javier Arenas.

The Alabama A-Day Game did not include all facets of the kicking game (kickoff returns were "touch" tackles, most punt returns were fair catches), and the placekicking was mostly mediocre. Alabama Coach Nick Saban said the punter would come from a fall newcomer, most likely Jay Williams.

Former Alabama Coach Paul Bryant put particular emphasis on the kicking game. "The game starts with a kick and kicking is one-third of the game," he said.

One of the more pleasant periods in Alabama football history for sportswriters was the seven-year era of Coach Gene Stallings. Following his daily press briefings in the staff room just outside his office, he would often spend time sharing stories and discussing things that interested him or the reporters.

One afternoon the subject of kickoffs came up. Alabama was having a lot of short kickoffs. I suggested that he had about 150 players on the field, most of whom had been the best athletes on their teams, and—I suspected—a large percentage of which had done the kickoff work. Surely, I continued, he had one guy out there who could consistently kickoff into the end zone.

Stallings said, "You'd think I'd have one who could play left tackle."

He didn't answer my question, but it was a great reply.

Stallings also had a wonderful retort to one of his placekickers. During practice, Stallings would stand about two feet from the kicker, just to the side of the ball that was being kicked. After a muffed field goal try, the kicker said, "Coach, it makes me nervous for you to be right there watching."

"Son," Stallings said, "I had to disappoint you, but I plan to be at every game."

I am looking forward to seeing Stallings today. He was an integral part of my book, "What It Means To Be Crimson Tide," which had the subtitle, "Gene Stallings and Alabama's Greatest Players." He was a delight to work with when he was coach and on the book and I consider him a friend.

The huge disappointment, of course, is that he is no longer accompanied by his son, Johnny, who finally lost his valiant battle a couple of years ago.

Stallings is in Tuscaloosa this weekend for his annual golf fund-raiser for RISE, the school on the campus of The University that works with those like Johnny who were born with Down's Syndrome.

As it happens, I'll be playing with a man who was a kicker at Alabama when Stallings was an assistant under Bryant. Tommy Brooker was primarily a tight end both at Bama and in professional football, was also a placekicker, and for many years was the volunteer coach for Bryant's teams working with placekickers. My son, Stuart, will also be playing, because we need one relatively young guy who can drive the ball. The fourth is Chuck Sittason, a retired banker and founder of the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation, which brought the Super Six Alabama high school football championship games to Bryant-Denny Stadium last fall.

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