Forum Classics

What Coach Gene Stallings did for Benji

Posted by bamabubba on November 10, 2003

Our son, Benji was scheduled for surgery relating to his ligaments and muscles from having Cerebral Palsy. It was scheduled the off week before the 1992 Alabama-Auburn game.

This is the story of what Coach Gene Stallings did for this little boy.

A few days before surgery Patricia and I decided to offer Benji his choice of something to do on the eve of the operation. Knowing he would be in a half body cast for six weeks, we wanted him to have a good time doing something he would enjoy the day before the operation. What Benji wanted to do blew us out of the water, although it really shouldn't have considering he had developed a love of the Crimson Tide.

Benji wanted to go to Tuscaloosa and play on Alabama's artificial turf where the football players worked out. He learned about the Astroturf field on a television newscast covering an Alabama football practice.

Being allergic to grass, Benji had never been able to play anywhere but in the house. We always played a game I called tackle tickle in the hallway. I would roll Benji his little rubber football and, once he picked it up and crawled toward me, I would gently lift him up in a tackle motion and then lower him to the floor and tickle him on his tummy.

He loved that game dearly and now he had his heart set on scooting around Alabama's Astroturf and getting tackled just like he was a real Bama football player.
I told him all I could do was make a call, but I was sure it would not be possible. I told Benji that the Astroturf practice field is only for players and coaches and not for little boys and their daddies. I assured him I would make the call, but I also warned him not to get his hopes too high.

I called the University of Alabama operator and explained my problem. She in turn connected me with Linda Knowles, who was Coach Gene Stallings’ administrative assistant. Linda was very understanding but agreed with my assessment of the situation, in that it probably would not be possible for Benji to scoot around outside on the artificial turf on what was expected to be a cool November afternoon. Still she took my phone number, told me she would check around to see what she could do, and then would call me back a little later in the day. I thought she would check with field maintenance personnel, get a resounding “No” and that would be the end of that.

Less than thirty minutes after speaking with Linda, the phone rang and it was none other than Coach Gene Stallings. This was the off week before the Auburn game for an undefeated team seeking a national championship. Coach took time out of a very busy preparation schedule to make this call. I was absolutely flabbergasted.

Coach Stallings said, “I hear your son wants to come play on my football field.” I told him it was true.
Coach Stallings wanted to know all about Benji's Cerebral Palsy and upcoming surgery. I told him the whole story and Coach said he knew what Benji, Patricia and me were going through. He then said it would be fine to come over the afternoon prior to surgery. He asked if Patricia would be coming as well and I told him she wouldn't miss it for the world. He then told me how to get out onto the turf from the parking lot, where he would have someone open the gate into the football complex. I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. Just as I began to hang up Coach said, "Hey, wait a minute!" Coach Stallings then asked if I thought Patricia would mind if he came out for a minute to see Benji on the practice field, if he could find the time. Coach said things were pretty busy getting ready for the Auburn game, but if he could find a moment he'd like to see our son and wish him luck with the surgery. I told him he didn't have to do that, but we sure would love it if he did. I thanked him and we hung up the phones.

I immediately called Patricia at work and told her the good news. She couldn't believe it. Benji would get his request and he might even meet Coach Stallings to boot.

We decided to only tell Benji we had heard from Coach Stallings and he was going to let him play on the Astroturf. We felt it was best not to tell Benji he possibly would meet Coach in case the workload prevented it. Benji was ecstatic. He asked to play tackle-tickle in the hallway several times leading up to that wonderful day.

When the day arrived we made our way that forty-five minutes over to Tuscaloosa and, just as promised, the football complex gate was open for us. I carried Benji in my arms and Patricia was in tow with his little football and his toy Alabama football helmet. Benji always loved to wear that thing when we played tackle tickle. We also brought our camera to take photos of Benji on the Astroturf. Of course in the back of our minds, like any parents would be, we were crossing our fingers that Coach might pop out to see Benji on the field.

Benji and I played tackle-tickle for a little while and then Patricia told Benji to look up for a moment. Coach Stallings was coming out of the football offices and making his way toward us. Benji perked up and grinned ear to ear. I’m sure he couldn't believe the man he saw so much every day on videotapes was here in person.

Not only did Coach Stallings come to meet with Benji, he brought along a present. It was one of the game balls from the 1992 Homecoming game against South Carolina played five weeks earlier. Patricia and I told Coach he didn't have to do that, but he said it was his ball and he wanted to give it to Benji. On the threads of the football were written the words “Beat The Cocks”. Alabama had beaten the Gamecocks that year 48-7 and we had taken Benji to the game. Coach Stallings then took out a magic marker pen from his pocket and said he wanted to sign the ball for Benji. I had my 35mm camera and asked if he would mind me taking some pictures of him and Benji. Coach said he wouldn't mind at all. Benji already had crawled over to Coach and had his body facing him, but his head turned toward Patricia and me. Benji then turned all the way around to face Coach Stallings, as Coach wrote the following inscription on the ball in big writing. "To Benji, Your Friend, Gene Stallings."

Coach gave Benji the football and the two of us went back to playing tackle tickle with my son's new prized possession. Coach Stallings in the meantime held a conversation with Patricia. She later informed me Coach had told her that children like Benji and his own son, John Mark, have a one-way ticket to heaven and nothing can take that away.

Coach Stallings posed for some more photos; one with the whole family as Patricia held the football, Coach Stallings held Benji and I set the camera timer before running over to join in the photograph.

Coach then told us he wanted Benji to come visit him in his office after he recovered from surgery. He said he wasn't just saying that to be nice. He said he really wanted to see Benji again.

One look at those photographs would tell anyone what that football meant to Benji. From the moment Coach Stallings gave it to him, he could hardly take his hands off it. Seeing this, I asked Coach if Benji could play with that ball instead of us putting it in a glass case or something like that. I said I knew it was a keepsake, but I thought Benji would get more out of it if he were allowed to play with it all the time. We would always have the photographs for any memory’s sake. Coach Stallings agreed wholeheartedly with me on that. Coach said it would thrill him to know Benji actually played with that thing.

Patricia and I thanked Coach again for making the day before surgery a memorable one for Benji. Coach said we could stay out on the Astroturf field as long as we wanted. We then said our goodbyes and Coach Stallings made his way back to the football offices.

We played for a while longer, until Benji had gotten his football fix, and then made our way back to Birmingham so Benji could get a good night's rest, before having to be at Children's Hospital at six o’clock the following morning.

We stopped and got the photographs developed at a one-hour photo place, because I just couldn't wait to see if they turned out okay. Developing those photos that afternoon was to be a blessing in disguise.

At the hospital the next morning I began to get a little antsy, or better to say I was terrified of this six-procedure surgery. I tried and succeeded in not letting on to Benji how I felt, but Patricia knows me well and was trying to keep me calm. I was a nervous wreck.

We were put in a room with a bed for Benji and they came in with the liquid that makes a person oblivious to what is going on around them. Benji had selected a Doctor Pepper flavored oxygen mask. We made light of that and any other thing we could think of to get Benji's mind off surgery. Before they came to take him we prayed as a family.

I wrote a poem about my thoughts that morning. Here is my poem:


Can't help but ponder, the three years in the past
Insurance wouldn't risk it, they said you might not last
The doctors they said little, to ease your parents' pain
I'd love to find that doctor now, who said you had no brain
He said we should commit you, he said that would be best
But our choice was to keep you, and give our love a test
Then there were the specialists who thought you'd never make it
But you fought death for three long months and proved that you could take it
Can't help but worry, it's only hours away
Let this be the right choice, dear Lord is what I pray
My son you see the white coats, you fear the doctor's touch
Look to the Lord in dreamland, and to his robe do clutch
His angel's wings will lift you, then healing will begin
Don't look for scars to vanish, for healing is from within
You'll feel the power burning, deep within your heart
May God then grant us courage, to see your rehab start
Can't help but marvel, at your strength and will
With me and mamma so afraid, we sense that grasping chill
Now here comes the stretcher bed, I don't think I can take it
I choke on words, "it'll be all right", and I know I have to fake it
Mamma leans to kiss your cheek, holding back a tear
I then hug you one last time, trying to show no fear
There you go off down the hall, it's now the surgeon's chore
We walk beside you step by step . . . until they close the door

The waiting seemed like forever and when it finally was over it really wasn't over at all. After surgery and while in the recovery room, it was learned Benji was allergic to the Demerol medication administered to him for pain. The allergic reaction caused even greater pain and there would be nothing the doctors could do until at least four to six hours later, when the Demerol would leave his body. He then could receive morphine for the pain, but for now Benji simply would have to suffer through what the doctors called "discomfort."

Nothing we could do got Benji's mind off the pain early on. We turned cartoons on the television and tried to hold him as best we could in a half body cast. Benji was crying out in pain, the nurses were crying and I'm telling you even one of the doctors was crying. You could tell these people really cared about Benji and it was hurting them to see him in such discomfort.

Finally Patricia reached into her purse. She had brought the photographs of Benji with Coach Stallings and asked Benji if he wanted to see them. He nodded that he did want to see them, while still crying in pain.

Benji took the photos and looked at them with tears rolling down his cheeks. He pulled out the one of him kneeling in front of Coach Stallings when signing the football, and he took that photo and held it to his chest. Benji then closed his eyes and the cries became whimpers. He still moaned lowly as he faded off to sleep, holding that photo as tight as he could.

Everyone in the room was in awe. The doctors couldn't believe it, the nurses couldn't believe it and me and Patricia could just shake our heads in disbelief. Without even knowing it, Coach Gene Stallings had provided Benji with something no doctor would be able to offer for hours. . . peace of mind. I'll never forget that moment as long as I live.

Before Benji woke up, the Demerol had left his system and morphine had been administered. There were no other complications and he was released from Children's Hospital on schedule.

We had purchased a Radio Flyer red wagon just like the ones used by Children's Hospital to transport children in style, not to mention the fun ride it provided a kid. Benji's half body cast made his legs slant out like the letter "A" complete with a carrying bar plastered across the middle. With pillows galore as a backrest and headrest, his cast straddled the wagon's sides.

My mom came up from Mobile to tend to Benji during times we were at work or during times of sleep. She was a godsend. The hardest chore, as you can imagine in such a cast, was going to the potty. There were places left out in the cast for a diaper, but it proved difficult to keep changed just the same. Other than that Benji seemed to accept the cast without problems.

Benji was the man of the hour at United Cerebral Palsy once he returned for pre-school in his cast. All the children and teachers would hover around him and his little red wagon. Benji liked being the center of attention among his friends during this time. In a little over a month’s time after he returned to school, the cast was removed and the hard work of rehabilitation began.

I continued using Alabama football as an incentive for Benji at this physically difficult time in his life. When Coach Stallings and Alabama went on to defeat Florida in the SEC Championship and then routed top-ranked Miami to win the national championship, I knew our VCR machine would be in for the workout of all workouts. That little boy lives and breathes Alabama football.

Despite being very frustrated at his physical limitations, Benji’s loveable personality was really beginning to blossom. Even with the severe speech impediment common with Cerebral Palsy, Benji wanted to talk to everyone he met and let them know he was a big Alabama fan. He would talk football almost nonstop and his teacher at United Cerebral Palsy used that as part of her preschool workload for him.

Benji worked extremely hard in rehab and before long, he was able to walk for the first time in his life, with the aid of a metal walker provided by the Shriners. We were so proud of him and we told him Coach Stallings was really proud of him as well. Whenever we would mention Coach, Benji would perk up. He would ask us if we really thought Coach Stallings was proud of him. We would tell him Coach Stallings was so VERY proud of him and then Benji would work even harder in rehab. Benji also would ask if we were going to take him back to see Coach Stallings. Now since Coach Stallings had told us he wanted us to do just that, I called Linda Knowles. She said Coach had been waiting to hear from us to set up such a meeting.

When we arrived in Tuscaloosa a week later, we went into the football complex and saw all those national championship trophies in the lobby. We took the elevator to the second floor and told the receptionist that Linda was expecting us. Benji was so excited about getting to see Coach Stallings again. Since it was our first time ever in the football offices, he also was awestruck by all the memorabilia we had seen in the lobby.

When we made our way down the first corridor, Benji was all smiles, but as he rounded the corner he stopped abruptly and began to act terrified. I asked what was the matter. Benji gave no answer and began to cry. It was the same reaction we had seen for years whenever we would have to take Benji to the many doctor’s offices. I looked up at the corridor walls and indeed they could have been mistaken for a doctor’s office. I assured Benji that Coach Stallings did not work in a doctor's office and if he looked closely at the pictures on the walls he would see they were of Bama football. Benji wouldn't budge and continued to cry.

Coach Stallings came out of his office into Linda's office and said hi. Coach then stepped back into his office and came out seconds later with an Alabama ball cap, just like he sometimes wore at football games on cold or rainy days. Benji put on the cap and said, "I love you Coach Stallings" and began to walk around in his walker all happy, having seen Coach and now assured there would be no doctors here with needles to prod and poke.

The visit lasted only a moment, but you could tell both Benji and Coach Stallings were quite moved. I wish Patricia could have been there, but she had too much work on her desk to warrant taking off another day.

Coach Stallings told me he wanted Benji to feel free to come play on his indoor or outdoor artificial turf fields whenever he wanted. I told Coach we would try to keep it to about three times a year if that was all right with him. I didn't want to impose. If it weren't for Benji being allergic to grass I would probably not have wanted to even come that often. Coaches are very busy and I didn't want to be like an autograph hound; you know, a real pain in the rear. I then thanked Coach for Benji's new ball cap and congratulated him on winning the national championship. I thanked Linda for having made all this possible and then Benji and I left to go to the Paul W. Bryant Museum. We hardly ever can take a trip to Tuscaloosa without Benji asking to go to the museum. It is his favorite place in Alabama. Thankfully the video displays change over the years, because I know we've been there countless times.

From that point on Benji continued to see Coach Stallings several times a year; once at the start of spring football practice, once during the summer and once during the season. Both Linda and Coach Stallings always were gracious and insisted Benji could come more often. When Coach Stallings resigned after the 1996 football season, he met with Benji one final time before going home to his ranch in Texas. During that meeting Coach Stallings gave Benji his home telephone number and insisted Benji call him every now and then at his ranch to let him know how things were going.

For a year or so we did keep in touch with Coach Stallings by telephone every now and then. Benji would talk about the upcoming call all day long until I would dial the number. Then he would be so quiet and shy on the phone, saying hardly a word, and I wondered just what in the world Coach Stallings was thinking about me making the call. Then, once the call was over, Benji would be talking a hundred miles an hour again, and he’d tell everyone who would listen that he had talked some football with Coach Stallings.

Patricia took up the hobby of crocheting a while back and she began making Afghans. She made John Mark a blanket of Alabama’s mascot Big Al. One time during Benji’s call to Coach Stallings, Ruth Ann Stallings came on the phone to tell us John Mark really loved that Afghan. Patricia was so very happy on hearing that.

Throughout all of this I kept thinking how Coach Stallings must have been doing the same things for the children of Texas that he had done in Alabama. I could not get this out of my mind. Eventually I held a family meeting with Patricia and Benji and told them I felt we should stop calling Coach. I told Benji it would be unfair to the boys and girls of Texas for us to continue taking away from their time with Coach Stallings. Benji asked if I thought Coach Stallings would always remember him. I told him indeed he would.

We did call one time when John Mark was very ill. A mutual friend, whose daughter attends the same church the Stallings family had attended while at Alabama, told me I really needed to ignore my feelings on imposing and make that call. And so I did.

I told Coach Stallings we were keeping John Mark in our prayers. He thanked me and then asked about Benji. Being the man he is, Coach told me he would not have given Benji his home telephone number if he didn’t want to hear from him. That made me feel good inside.

We all know the recent 2002 football season marked the tenth anniversary of Coach Stallings and the Alabama Crimson Tide winning the 1992 national championship. For me personally, it marked a time when a remarkable man came into our son’s life. This man turned Benji’s frustration into serenity, his pain into comfort and, over the course of many years, made our little boy (who wondered where he fit in this great big old world) find a welcome second home in the Alabama football program.

During what I refer to as the Camelot years of the special needs children in the state of Alabama, I frequently visited the Little Professor Bookstore in Homewood, just south of Birmingham. This bookstore had a refreshment stand complete with tables and chairs, allowing patrons to buy something and then sit down to read what they purchased. That bookstore had newspapers from all over the country and from some of the major cities in Alabama. I used to go there each week and buy any newspaper that had a story on the Crimson Tide. That day one of the newspapers had yet another story on what Coach Stallings was doing for special needs children. This time it was a story on a visit from children at the RISE program, complete with a photo of a little girl with Down syndrome wearing a Bama football helmet on her way out onto the practice field, where Gene Stallings was spending so much time with those children just like her. A girl had Big Al the elephant on her shirt and a boy was donning a championship cap. It truly was a wonderful story.

I remember thinking to myself what a kind soul Gene Stallings had in spending so much of his time with all these children. I also felt so very lucky that Benji benefited from this passion Coach Stallings had for making each and every one of these children feel they are special.

The tranquility from reading that story was broken when an absolute jerk, who was a fan of another school in our state, told me it was all a gimmick and that Coach Stallings was just playing to the press for a good photo opportunity or two.

I was so mad I could have bitten a two-penny nail in two, but I held my tongue, with the exception of telling the man he was mistaken.

On the drive back home from the bookstore I kept thinking of things I should have said to the jerk, but alas it turned out fine. The situation inspired me to write a poem the moment I arrived home, to honor Coach Stallings for the father he was to his son… for the friend he was to my son… and for the inspiration he was to the sons and daughters of people in each and every city he ever had resided.

Here is my poem:


Coach Gene Stallings
I just read a wonderful story, about a truly remarkable man
And I'd like to pass it on to you, as best as I possibly can
The man is a coach of champions, who stands tall, clean and proud
It's what's done off the field however, that lifts him above the crowd
Coach Stallings showed his true character, in raising John Mark his Down syndrome child
And Coach lavished praise upon Johnny, for helping his demeanor grow mild
It was such a wonderful story, what he does for our handicapped youth
More than one tear appeared in my eyes and I'm here to tell you the truth
Coach Stallings spoke with each parent and had such wonderful things to say
He said these children have a ticket to heaven and nothing can take that away
So much time he spent with the children, smiling faces were scattered about
The children went home with their parents, so excited they just had to shout
Some girls had shirts with an elephant, some boys had championship caps
They all had enough fond memories, to last through those dreaded noon naps
Though pain and frustration continued, it was not quite severe as before
The story made the parents come to realize, the sheer power of this man they adore
When a child fought daily through therapy and the simplest task was a chore
"Mom, Dad, Coach Stallings are so proud,” now the child would try it some more
As I finished reading this story, a man seated beside me kept grinning
Having read it over my shoulder, he said Coach only cared about winning
He said don't go fallings for features, they're written to boost an image
If I wanted to see the real Stallings, then check out tomorrow's scrimmage
I stood up and folded the paper; this smart aleck had crossed the line
The fool was wrong and I told him so, knowing one of those children was mine

Yes sir, the Kenny family has so many fond memories of Coach Stallings and the time he spent with Benji. I treasure each and every one of them and I know Benji does as well.

During one of Benji’s visits Coach Stallings had this raccoon he let climb on his shoulder. It appeared to be a baby raccoon and was real tame. Benji got the biggest charge out of him and Coach playing with that raccoon.

One other time after a visit with Coach Stallings, Benji and I made our way over to the Bryant Museum. While we were watching the different videos on display, the curator informed us John Mark Stallings was working for the museum and asked Benji if he ever had met John Mark. We told him we had not and he invited us into another room on the other side of the museum. Benji told John Mark he had seen him on CBS TV years earlier when John Mark and Coach were interviewed for the Iron Bowl.

After watching that game over and over again throughout the years, Benji practically had memorized everything on that VCR tape. I asked John Mark if he remembered what he said on television that Thanksgiving week and he said it again for Benji, “ROLL TIDE TURKEY!” We all laughed and I told John Mark it felt great to meet a superstar like him face to face. John Mark then asked Benji if he’d like to see his 1992 national championship ring. Benji’s eyes got really big when John Mark took off his ring and let him hold it for a closer look. I told John Mark he was as nice as his daddy and also told him Coach Stallings was the best daddy in the whole wide world. John Mark answered he already knew that.

By far the most memorable meeting we had in the football complex came the week Alabama was to play LSU in Baton Rouge during the 1996 season. An undefeated 7-0 and highly ranked Bama team had just lost 20-13 to Tennessee in Knoxville. Next up would be LSU down on the bayou. Bengal Tiger fans were gearing up for what they believed would be their first home win over the Crimson Tide in twenty-five years. The media seemed to agree with that assessment. We called Linda after the loss to the Vols and asked her what she thought about Benji stopping by to see Coach Stallings later in the week to show his support. Linda said she thought seeing Benji would make his day and so we set up the meeting for later in the week.

Coach Stallings met Benji and me in the hallway leading to Linda's office. He greeted Benji with his patented usual smile and then looked at me and said, "Can I ask you something?"

I told him he could ask me anything.

Coach said the entire football team was meeting in the building at that very moment and he wondered if Benji could go into the room and walk in front of the players. Coach thought that seeing this child walk, after all he had been through, could inspire the team. I was very grateful at the opportunity for us to give a little something back to the program, after all that had been done for our son. As for Benji, well he was on cloud nine. He was thrilled he would get to see all his favorite players in one room at one time. Benji giggled all the way down the hall, practically running in his walker behind Coach Stallings and in front of me. It surely was one of the happiest days of his life.

Coach Stallings gave the team a history of Benji's Cerebral Palsy and how the specialists predicted he would never walk, or even be able to talk. Coach told the players of Benji's operation four years earlier in November 1992 to sheer back his Achilles Tendons, his groin muscles, and the tendons and ligaments behind his knees, which did allow Benji to walk with assistance.

Coach allowed me to tell the players how much they meant to children like Benji. I explained how I used their televised football performances to inspire Benji to give his best effort during therapy and in everyday life. I told these athletes Benji now was able to do the three things doctors earlier had predicted he would never, ever do: TALK, WALK, and THROW A BALL. Without use of Alabama football videos from infancy to present day, I’m not sure where Benji would be developmental wise. I finished by telling the players what they were about to witness only was possible due to the grace of God and the inspiration Benji got from watching Alabama football players, along with Benji’s hard work. I thanked the players for coming to the University of Alabama; the Mecca for special needs children. I then thanked Coach Stallings in front of his football team for being the man he was.

Coach then turned to Benji and asked him if he felt up to strolling his metal walker across the floor. Benji hurriedly strolled over to Coach Stallings, who was smiling broadly. Then Benji stood up and walked back to me without using the walker. He could walk very short distances without it, but it took a lot of effort and the spasticity was overwhelming. Every step was an example of utmost determination. I gave Benji a big hug when he reached my outstretched arms. I lifted him up and faced the players.

There wasn't a dry eye in the place. It was a sight to see… all these big, strapping athletes showing their emotions. The players gave Benji a standing ovation and Coach Stallings was shaking his head in wonder. Benji whispered in my ear that he would like to tell the players something. I passed it on to Coach and he quietened down the applause.

Benji said only five words. “I LOVE YOU.” And “ROLL TIDE!”

With that we said our goodbyes to Coach Stallings and started to make our way out of the meeting room. As we were leaving, Coach Stallings could be heard telling the players they had just witnessed what it meant to have courage on an everyday basis.

Saturday night came and Benji was glued to the television. Bama absolutely destroyed LSU 26-0 that night, with Shawn Alexander and company literally ramming the ball down LSU's throat. It was sheer determination and an absolute display of mental toughness.

When Coach Stallings autographed his book about John Mark entitled "Another Season" he wrote the following inscription to our son: "To my friend Benji – Your walking for our team before the LSU game helped us win - Thank you for all you do. Gene Stallings.

The Stallings family recently came back to Tuscaloosa for the annual Gene Stallings Charity Golf Outing to benefit RISE. Linda Knowles convinced us to come over and see them. By now Patricia had really improved her crochet technique and she had made John Mark an exact replica of the new Alabama elephant logo. Coach Stallings had pictures made of that blanket immediately while still on the golf course. He really was impressed with Patricia’s talent.

As for Johnny, well he had no idea at first that Patricia was giving the Afghan to him. He thought she was just showing the Afghan off. When John Mark realized it was his to keep, he asked Patricia for a BIG hug, and then he hugged Benji, and then he hugged me. John Mark is such a happy man. And it appeared he was even happier that day.

We have so much to be grateful for this upcoming Thanksgiving. One of the things the Kenny family can thank God for is allowing Benji to have met Linda Knowles and Coach Gene Stallings and become their friend. I only hope they know how much they have influenced the life of this wonderful child.


Michael J. Kenny