(CNSNews.com) – Legendary football coach Gene Stallings made history as the youngest college coach at the helm of his alma mater, Texas A&M, and a perfect 12-0 season during his reign at the University of Alabama. But he says raising his son Johnny was his greatest reward.
“My life wouldn’t have been nearly as rich without Johnny, no question about it,” Stallings told CNSNews.com of his son, who was born with Down syndrome in 1962.
Johnny outlived his doctors’ prediction that he wouldn’t live past the age of two because of heart problems, and when he died at 46 on Aug. 2, the accolades poured in.
“We’ve got more than 1,300 letters,” Stallings said. “Not notes, but letters telling us what a difference Johnny made in their lives, and thanking us for sharing Johnny.”
In remembering his son, Stallings said that, as a father, he has come full circle.
“The two saddest days of my life were when he was born and when he died,” Stallings said. “When he was born, I was devastated, and when he died, I was even more devastated.”
That’s because, Stallings said, he did not know then what he knows now.
“If the good Lord asked if he could give me a perfectly normal child or Johnny, I’d pick Johnny every time,” Stallings said. “No doubt about it.”
He added that ignorance must account for the fact that 90 percent of women who are pre-natally diagnosed with carrying a child with Down syndrome choose to abort the child.
“They just don’t know what they are missing,” said Stallings, who now works on his farm in Powderly, Texas, and gives motivational speeches. “Johnny was 46 years old and didn’t know a bad word. He saw the good in everyone. He loved going to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, and he remembered everyone’s name.”
“When we got to church, there would be 20 women lined up to give him a hug,” said Stallings.
Stallings said he understands how difficult it is for parents to get the news that their child has a disability, especially in 1962 when there were virtually no resources for parents or their children.
“I passed out when they told me,” Stallings said. “I drew back to hit the doctor, who called him a Mongoloid – that’s what they said back then – and I passed out.”
Stallings said doctors encouraged him and his wife, Ruth Ann, to institutionalize their son. But they wouldn’t hear of it. He added that even if tests were available back then, it would not have changed their minds.
“Even if she’d had the test, we would still have had the child,” he said.
Stallings wrote about the challenges and joys of raising Johnny and his remarkable coaching career in a book, “Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son.”
The book weaves a moving tale of how a fiercely competitive man with a high-powered job – and the players he coached – discovered humanity through Johnny that they would not otherwise have known.
“It wasn’t just the players and their children who were responding so positively to (Johnny,)” Stallings wrote. “Many nights when I’d come home from work, I’d find that his teacher, Nancy Hall, had stopped by the house after school. She’d help him with his homework and bring some kind of treat.”
In an obituary for Johnny that ran in the Dallas Morning News, Laurie Vanderpool, one of Johnny’s four sisters, said her brother was special.
“He just had a genuine impact on people, really because he cared,” she said. “He would focus on the people for who they were.”
Johnny became a fixture in the stadiums where Stallings coached, which included the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis and Arizona Cardinals.
At the University of Alabama, the football equipment room is named in honor of Johnny. And a playground for the campus’s RISE program for disabled children where Johnny volunteered is named for him.
A deeply religious man, Stallings said the wish most parents have for their children has been granted him for his son Johnny.
“There’s no question he will be in the presence of God forever,” Stallings said. “He was a precious, precious child.”