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‘I’d take Johnny every time,’ coach says of Down son

VIENNA, Va. (BP)–“Sometimes something we think is bad ain’t all that bad,” drawled football coaching legend Gene Stallings of University of Alabama fame in talking about his son John Mark being born with Down syndrome.

“Forty three years ago when Johnny was born, they told us to put him in an institution. ‘After a year,’ they said, ‘you’ll forget you had him,’” Stallings told attendees at the seventh annual Accessibility Summit at McLean Bible Church.

His wife Ruth Ann, however, was committed to raising all their children at home.

Stallings affirmed his wife’s resolve, noting that he has been enriched beyond anything else in his life by his son.

“I prayed to God that He would change Johnny, but He changed me,” Stallings said simply.

When he was asked to write a book about parenting a child with Down syndrome, he first objected.

“You see, I didn’t want to remember those early days,” Stallings said. But he did write “Another Season,” published in 1997, with the subtitle of “A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son.”

“It sort of takes a while,” Stalling said of his growth as Johnny’s dad. “We live in an environment where we want it now. You see, it takes a while.”

Doctors told them Johnny wouldn’t make it to age 4, and when he did, they said he wouldn’t live past 11 because of heart and lung issues common to people with Down syndrome.

“He’s 43! My girls judged the men they married by how sensitive they were to Johnny.”

All the bleak predictions proved wrong, and Stallings noted that achievements like being on the coaching staff for the Dallas Cowboys’ 1978 Super Bowl win or, in 1992, as head football coach at the University of Alabama producing the first perfect regular season since 1979 don’t compare to what Johnny brought to his life.

Stallings has become an outspoken advocate for special needs, as a motivational speaker and in working on initiatives such as serving on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and coordinating RISE, a multi-state, community-based program which prepares developmentally disabled infants, toddlers and preschoolers for the public school environment by integrating them with non-disabled peers.

Stallings said he couldn’t have been prouder than when his son was honored by the University of Alabama, which named their football equipment room after him.

“If I could have one wish for my child, it would be that he could spend eternity in the presence of God. You’re raising a child that’s gonna be in the presence of God forever,” he told participants at the Accessibility Summit.

He said if God offered him the choice of going back and having a “perfect” son without a disability or having Johnny, “I’d take Johnny every time.”

Throughout Johnny’s life, Stallings said the little acts of kindness from friends and strangers stand out in his mind in terms of making life a little bit better for his son.

“What a joy to be in the presence of people that aren’t just talking about it, but doing something about it,” Stallings said.

Christopher Simning, who also addressed the March 24-25 gathering at the Washington-area McLean Bible Church, had a few football stories of his own. He used to play football when he was a kid, despite the fine motor cerebral palsy that caused his hands to shake. He loved football and was good at it. Then, one morning in the eighth grade, he woke up with a muscular disorder that caused an eventual twisting of the body, affecting the nervous system and muscles, landing him in a wheelchair.

Upon first reading John 5, when Jesus asked the invalid if he wanted to get well, Simning humorously recalled, he was perplexed about the necessity of that question.

“Jesus, did You really ask that question? Isn’t that obvious?” he recounted with mock incredulity, drawing laughter from the crowd.

As he pondered Jesus asking such a question, he realized it wasn’t about the desire to be well. It was about the mat, he said, explaining, “I wonder if we are sitting on our mats. Our mats can be anything that hinders our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

“How many times do I make excuses and still sit on my mat?”

As a sophomore in college, he took a swimming class to earn his required physical education credits, and it wound up being what enabled him to walk again, though still with great effort.

“I didn’t think I would ever see the day -– I’m driving a car. Scary. Stay off the road,” he joked. “And I’m a full-time motivational speaker,” joking again that the audience could be honest that he’s not exactly what they envision when they think of that.

“Do you ever want to just scream because of the way that life goes? This is not the life I signed up for. But this is the life the Lord has for me,” Simning said.

“Jesus wants to move us. He doesn’t want us to be bitter people because of life’s woes and worries. He wants us to be better.”

    About the Author

  • Andrea Higgins