Gregg Thompson is a 1972 graduate of Paris High School, former sports writer for The Paris News and currently director of corporate communications for Chick-Fil-A in Atlanta, Ga.
Gregg Thompson, *Contributor* Published August 4, 2008
*All I ever really needed to know, I learned from Johnny Stallings.*
You can go to the finest schools and get any advanced degree they offer. Or you can read all of the business and self-improvement books you want. But for a Ph.D in true wisdom, take a look at the life of Johnny Stallings.
You may have never heard of Johnny. He had Down Syndrome. When he was born, 46 years ago in Alabama, the doctors said he wouldn't live even a year or two because of a severe heart defect. Other well-meaning doctors advised his parents to put him in an institution. "In a year," they said, "you'll forget you ever had him."
But fortunately for all of us, Gene and Ruth Ann Stallings didn't take their advice. They chose to treat Johnny as a vital part of their family.
And we are all the better for it.
As his father advanced his football coaching career - first at Alabama, then to Texas A&M, the Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals and finally to a national championship in 1992 at Alabama - Johnny was an integral part of the team. To Johnny, the most important person was the trainer.
Trainers take care of the players," he once said. "You can't win without trainers."
To the day he died, Johnny Stallings wore a massive, diamond-encrusted National Championship ring on his frail fingers, which were tinged a grayish blue from the lack of oxygen caused by his heart condition.
Johnny was front and center in that National Championship team photo. In fact, he was a part of every team his father coached, including the storied Dallas Cowboys. The players drew inspiration from him. When Johnny turned 40 years old, for example, his birthday party was
attended by a Who's Who of former NFL stars.
Johnny had some accomplishments of his own. He was featured with his father on a popular national United Way TV commercial, has a playground named for him at the RISE center in Tuscaloosa, had the athletic training facility at Alabama named for him, and won a "Change the World" award from Abilene Christian University.
But perhaps the most important thing that Johnny Stallings accomplished is this: he taught us that it doesn't matter what awards you win, or what worldly accomplishments you achieve, it is how you live your life that matters most.
So what can we learn from Johnny Stallings?
** Every life matters.*
The life of Johnny Stallings teaches us that God can use anyone, no matter how insignificant in society's eyes, to make an impact on others. Johnny had none of the things that you and I take for granted, but Johnny touched countless lives in ways none of us can even begin to imagine. Our materialistic, success-driven culture doesn't really know what to do with people like Johnny. Society certainly didn't know what to do with Johnny when he was born 46 years ago. But God did.
** See the good in everyone. "Be my friend."*
When Johnny got to know you, you became his "friend." And he never forgot you. Despite being mentally disabled, Johnny never forgot a name or a face. Johnny literally saw no evil in people. Johnny had more friends in his short lifetime than any of us will ever enjoy.
** Walk openly, simply and humbly with God.*
The Bible tells us, "And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." That describes the way Johnny lived. He could barely read or write, but Johnny Stallings prayed the sweetest prayers you ever heard. He didn't necessarily know the fine points of theology, but you could tell that he knew God. He walked with God, openly, simply and humbly. And everybody knew it, whether they acowledged that God or not.
** Love unconditionally.*
In Johnny's world, you didn't keep score or attach strings to love. He loved unconditionally, all of the time.
** Smile. Laugh. Hug.*
The last time I saw Johnny, we brought him a T-shirt from Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa, one of his favorite places to eat. Johnny hugged us. He patted us. He smiled all of the time. Johnny was one of these people who always made everyone feel better just for having been
around him. Who among us can say that about ourselves?
** Treasure every moment*.
Johnny, of course, was supposed to be put away in an institution. Doctors told them Johnny wouldn't make it to age 4, and when he did, they then said he wouldn't live past 11 because of heart and lung issues common to people with Down Syndrome. Then we always heard that Johnny wouldn't live past 16. And on and on. So with Johnny, you treasured every moment.
** Little victories are the ones that matter the most.*
Everyone focuses on the championships, but with Johnny, you celebrated all of the little victories. Then, after a while, you realized that those are the ones that really matter the most.
**Trust God because He really does know best.*
Despite being frail and disabled, Johnny Stallings wore a National Championship ring. Every member of that 1992 Alabama team will tell you of Johnny's impact on that team. Johnny Stallings literally changed the world and made everybody he met a better person - if only for that moment.
Gene Stallings, a star football player, championship coach and tough enough to be one of Bear Bryant's legendary Junction Boys, probably used to dream of a son who would be an impact player, who would change the world, make a difference and someday maybe - just maybe - wear a National Championship ring.
"I prayed to God that He would change Johnny, but He changed me," Coach Stallings once said in a speech. He added that 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."