My college football loyalties are well know. I bleed crimson, not just any old shade of red. I am rolling with the Tide and can't wait for the BCS Championship game on January 7th. My family used three phones and five computers to try to get a ticket for me when they went on sale last Tuesday. Like thousands who also tried we also failed. The few thousand that were sold to the general public were gone in three minutes I believe. I have plenty of free air miles, a place to stay with a nephew and a car to use. But no ticket. Guess I will watch on a big screen. No complaints here. But it would have been such a blast to be there.
What is often missed in the hoopla that surrounds sport in America is the real human interest stuff. The last coach to win a national championship at Alabama was not Bear Bryant, as some might think. It was Gene Stallings, a class guy through and through. Stallings left the game back in the 1990s, to our chagrin and Alabama's huge loss, to care for his Down syndrome son, John Mark. John Mark and his dad had a very special bond as told in a wonderful book by the coach. The old tough football coach was melted when he began to love this baby and stood by him until he died at age 46. In fact John Mark may be the most respected guy, besides Bear Bryant, in Alabama football lore. He was routinely cheered and adored. When he died people openly wept and he is remembered by all associated with Bama football.
Alabama has a tradition of commissioning painters to portray the great moments in their storied football tradition. The big one this season is called "The Block." It was the season saving play where Terrence "Mount" Cody blocked a Tennessee game winning field goal attempt with four seconds left in the game. I have "The Block" as my screen saver.
Enter the Gene and John Mark Stallings story. Steve Skipper began painting a picture of Coach Stallings and his late son, John Mark, some time ago. Sportswriter Kevin Scarbinksy quoted Skipper saying, "No matter how many reps it took, he had get it right. Coach didn’t want me to simply paint Johnny. He wanted me to honor him." How does a painter do justice to the most beloved father and son in Alabama football history? How do you capture on canvas what they meant to one another and to so many others? "I’ve done a lot of projects," Skipper said. "I don’t believe I’ve ever been this honored."
An Alabama sports writer writes: "This project may be unique in the growing collection of fine art dedicated to the art and heart of Alabama football." The painting is called: "Bama’s Greatest Fan." The original painting, commissioned by the Stallings family, was unveiled yesterday at the Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa. Gene Stallings was there to take part in the ceremony.
The majority of the proceeds from the painting will go to the RISE program at the Stallings Center in Tuscaloosa, which serves young children with disabilities. John Mark, who was born with Down syndrome, helped so many people there. The playground at the Stallings Center is named in his honor. So is the street out front.
The painting itself was based on a famous photograph of the coach and his son in one of their favorite places, a golf cart on the football practice field. John Mark was always around his dad and the team. "That photo says everything to me," Skipper said. "Coach Stallings, a former football player and coach, carries himself like John Wayne. His strong right arm around Johnny puts everything in perspective. I believe the love between them is what kept Johnny alive all those years."
Skipper’s work is not merely based on photographs, however. He knew John Mark. "I was blown away by his gentleness," Skipper said. "As an artist, we look for inspiration. John Mark is an instant inspiration."
Everyone who knew Johnny knew how much he loved Alabama football, and his love didn’t fade after his father retired. Gene Stallings loves to tell the story of asking his son to name his favorite Alabama coach, and hearing him answer, without skipping a beat, "Nick Saban."