This Song of the South begins with a feisty little lady named Phyllis from Mulga, Alabama. If you follow the SEC or watch ESPN, you know who she is.
Phyllis is perhaps the most famous caller on the Paul Finebaum show which, as pretty much all of you know, is a daily devotion of mine. I set up my writing sessions so that I can have that four hour block off every weekday--mostly because there's no way I can write when Finebaum's going on in the background. Phyllis is a big part of why I am addicted to the show. She is a die hard Alabama fan, known mostly for her rants against self-satisfied sports media types like Colin Cowherd. Last year, she sneeringly referred to him as Colin Cow-turd, and apparently that really bothered him because he hasn't stopped talking about that yet.
When a caller to a radio/SEC Network show makes it onto SportsCenter because Colin Cow-turd is butt-hurt that Phyllis from Mulga called him a mean name, you know that caller has some serious chops.
To tell Phyllis's story--and I'll try to do it justice--we have to start at the beginning, and that's fifty-odd years ago. Phyllis's father was a huge Alabama fan, and brought up his five sons and daughter to be the same way. Her dad was in the military, and throughout all the moving the family remained devoted to the Crimson Tide. Phyllis's father died at the age of forty-four, when she was just seventeen. But until the end, he commanded his children to carry on his love for Bama--and they did. At his funeral, all the flowers were crimson and white, and all six kids continued to cheer for the Tide. So through the Bear Bryant years of the 1960's and 70's, Alabama football was an important facet of life. The family came together for games, and as the kids got married and had kids of their own, they passed that love on to the next generation.
In 1978, Phyllis had a son, Jesse*. Unfortunately, there were complications with the birth, and when he was born he suffered from oxygen deprivation. Jesse was rushed to ICU so they could get him breathing on his own. The trauma of his birth caused mild brain damage, which for Jesse manifested in a neurological condition called familial tremors on his right side. Familial tremors are similar to Parkinson's disease and cause a patient to shake, uncontrollably and sometimes rapidly. The condition can worsen through emotional stress, or when the patient is trying to perform motor skills that require precision--like eating with silverware, for example. Such a condition is trying, but for a child it carries a special kind of hell. With Phyllis's son, that hell began when he started school.
Kids can be nasty little critters, unfortunately, and Phyllis's son learned that when he started going to school. As the days went on, Jesse grew to hate school because the people in it were cruel to him. The other boys would bully him, sometimes right in front of teachers who did nothing to protect the child. For example, when Jesse was nine, he was sitting in his seat on the bus and the bullies grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back into the next seat. Then they ganged up on him, making fun of his shaking.
The little boy had no friends, no hope, no outlet. And while Phyllis and her husband tried everything they could think of to help their son, Jesse sank into a serious depression. During that time, Gene Stallings was hired as the head coach at Alabama. Stallings was one of Bear Bryant's famous "Junction Boys" when he was the coach at Texas A&M, and had worked for the Bear as a defensive assistant coach for both the 1961 and 1964 national championship teams. So Stallings was familiar to Phyllis and her family, as he was to most of the Crimson Tide faithful.
One day, Jesse carried his lunch tray to the table where he sat, alone, every day. As he was opening his milk, his right hand began to tremble and he spilled his milk. So while he was trying to control the tremors so he could drink his milk, a table full of boys came over to make fun of him. One of the little monsters jumped up on the table and shouted, "Hey everybody! Come over here and watch Jesse make a milkshake!"
When Jesse got home, he was crying his eyes out. Phyllis sat him at the table trying to soothe her sobbing son. "What's wrong, Jesse?"
"Mom, I want to die."
Hearing a child say such a thing is the kind of thing that freezes a mother's heart. Phyllis instantly exclaimed,"Don't you say that! Don't you ever say a thing like that!"
"But I do, Mom. If life is going to be like this, I don't want to live it," the boy cried, and then he told his mother what had happened in the cafeteria.
That was the final blow. Phyllis and her husband knew their son was in trouble. They took him to the doctor, who immediately sent the entire family for therapy. Jesse needed help, not only learning to cope with his disability but also the crushing depression that was the natural after-effect of the bullying he endured at school. Their therapist recommended that they enroll their son in a school where he could receive full-time therapy, and they did. Jesse could only come home on the weekends, and they tried to make those visits home special. For this family, that naturally involved Alabama football. Every Saturday, the family would allow the familiar rhythms and excitement of football to draw Jesse back into the family fold. It was now 1992, when Alabama won the national championship, and Jesse's love for Tide football grew into a serious hero worship of Coach Stallings--like many of the boys his age in Alabama did that fall.
Jesse remained away at school for a year. When he returned home, he was coping better with his disability physically. But when he returned to school, the bullying started again. Phyllis was forced to watch as her son's depression intensified, and desperately tried to think of something--anything--to help Jesse get better.
So one day in March of 1993, she picked up the phone and called the athletic department at the University of Alabama. When she said she wanted to speak to Coach Stallings, they put her through to his secretary. Phyllis asked if it would be possible to send Jesse a signed picture of the coach. "My son needs a hero," she explained.
The secretary replied, "I will take this to Coach Stallings personally. I'll be praying for y'all." Phyllis hung up the phone and that was that. She had no way of knowing when--or if--the coach would grant her request.
Three days later, a poster tube arrived in the mail. The autographed poster was of Coach Stallings standing in the middle of the football field. Jesse was delighted with the poster. The autograph read: Jesse, thank you for being my friend--Gene Stallings.
A lot of stories like Phyllis's would end here. But not hers. This is where the story grows, entwining this woman desperate to help her troubled son with the Alabama head football coach--and, as any SEC fan knows, the head football coach of the Crimson Tide is actually the most powerful man in the state as long as he holds that job. Phyllis and Jesse were blessed, really, that Gene Stallings was that man. For Stallings, father of a son with Down's Syndrome, understood what mother and son were going through. And for him, a simple poster just wasn't enough.
A few days later, the coach's secretary called Phyllis back. Stallings wanted to meet Jesse. So Phyllis, along with her excited son, older daughter, and two of her grandchildren, drove from Mulga, a little town outside Birmingham, to the University of Alabama football office in Tuscaloosa. They waited in the office with the secretary. "All of a sudden, the door opened and the biggest man I've ever seen in my life was standing there. He was so tall I thought he'd hit his head on the top of the door. My mouth fell open and so did Jesse's."
Before anyone could say a word, Jesse bolted across the room and hugged Coach Stallings around the legs. He looked up at this tall, kind-looking man and blurted, "Coach, do you really want to be my friend?"
Coach Stallings looked down at the boy and said gently, "What are you talking about, Jesse? I already am your friend."
Stallings sat down with the entire family, "He sat there and talked about football and talked to Jesse like he was grown up," Phyllis told me. "I could see right then a relationship was born. We were there for over an hour. He'd brought Johnny, his son with Down's Syndrome, to meet all of us and he was the most precious person I’ve ever met. After we went home, I saw the lights go off in Jesse’s eyes."
"Mama, I want to be the kind of man Coach is. He's a good man," Jesse said.
"Yes, son, he is. But you're special too."
"Because you are who you are, I got to meet my hero today too," Phyllis told her son. "Because he wanted to meet you."
That spring day in 1993 was the beginning of a relationship between the big, kindhearted football coach and Jesse. "In my closet, there's a big gold envelope," Phyllis said. "In that envelope are fifty-seven letters that Coach Stallings sent to Jesse. They're not lengthy. Sometimes it was simple, like Jesse, I was just thinking of you today. You keep your chin up and make today a good day! And Jesse would write him back, and Coach would answer every letter."
When Jesse went back to school, he told some of his tormentors that he'd met Coach Stallings, but none of them believed him. So in one of his letters, he asked the coach what he should do about the bullying. Stallings responded by sending another package. One of the pictures they'd taken the day Jesse and Coach Stallings met was blown up poster-size, and with it Stallings had written: Jesse, I want you to take this to school and show them that they are wrong. I am your friend and this proves it.
He also sent him a copy of the newspaper article after Alabama had won the national championship. There were seven pictures in the paper--pictures of the entire football team. And every player on that team had autographed the paper for Jesse. Here’s something to take to school! Stallings wrote.
Jesse took the poster and newspaper to school, and all of a sudden his entire life changed. Now the other kids wanted to know him because--wonder of wonders!--Jesse knew the head football coach at the University of Alabama! They were friends!
And from that point on, they left him alone.
"Because of Coach, Jesse got through to those kids at school that were bullying him. They turned around on a dime. They never bullied him again," Phyllis said, and I could hear the smile in her voice through the phone. "Jesse would tell them, 'Coach don’t care if I shake.' And the kids said, 'We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done that.'
"Even one of the teachers who'd stood by and let those boys bully my son said, 'I saw those posters. I saw that newspaper. Chris is a mighty special child for Coach Stallings to do this.'
"'He’s not just special, he’s important,' I told her."
And once the story is put into its proper historical perspective, Stallings's actions become even more amazing.
"He had the defending national championship football team about to start spring ball, but he found the time to take Jesse in his arms," Phyllis said, her voice breaking. "Coach Stallings gave my son self-esteem...self-worth. Jesse followed his example. Coach told him not to get into drinking, not to do drugs. 'You can become somebody,' he told him. 'I'm depending on you to be a good son, like you've always been.' Now Jesse's a happy young men. I owe all that to Coach Stallings. He wasn't just a coach. He was a lifesaver. My husband and I were lost; brokenhearted. We didn't know what to do. Coach stepped in and gave my son a hero when he needed one the most."
Not every child with difficulties like the ones Jesse faced has a happy ending. Coach Stallings's own son, John Mark, died of a congenital heart defect in 2008. The coach chronicled his relationship with Johnny in a book he co-wrote with Sally Cook entitled Another Season: A Coach's Story of Raising An Exceptional Son. (Which is, by the way, an amazing read. I highly recommend it.) Every time Phyllis took Jesse down to Tuscaloosa, Coach Stallings would bring Johnny to meet them. "Coach‘s son was important to us. When you got hugged by Johnny, you got hugged. When he walked into a room, it all just got mellow. I was so proud that Coach Stallings got him to come each time we were there. That was one of the most blessed things—that we got to meet him too.
"When Johnny died it just broke our hearts. I couldn’t even stand the thought of how Coach Stallings and his wife felt. I couldn’t fathom it. When I talked to Coach again I broke down telling him I was so sorry. He said, 'The Lord has plans for all of us. Johnny wasn’t supposed to live til ten, but he showed them. He had a good life.' But I could tell his heart was torn into pieces."
One common theme I've found while listening to these Saturday Songs is how these teams, these schools and the people who love them find ways to do extraordinary things. Gene Stallings is an honored and highly respected man who has done great things throughout his life. On the University of Alabama campus is The Stallings Center, which is the home of the RISE school and its program designed to help children with disabilities from birth to age 5. The Stallings Center, established in 1994, now serves as a model for similar programs across the nation--partially funded by the golf tournament Coach Stallings hosts annually. And the playground at the center is named after his son.
But that's a big thing, something that in and of itself demonstrates palpably the positive influence Gene Stallings has. What makes Phyllis's story so poignant, so important, is the fact that while a bundle of fifty-odd letters, a few meetings, and some signed pictures might not seem like a big thing to the rest of us, for Jesse it was a monumental thing--an important thing. For Jesse, meeting Gene Stallings opened the door for a miracle--and that's an impact that cannot be quantified or dismissed. That miracle kept Jesse from becoming a statistic, it taught him how to find and make friends, and showed him that you can stand up to bullies and walk away the better man. That miracle has resulted in the continuing relationship between Stallings and Phyllis's family even today. "I talked to Coach Thursday before last. First thing he said was, 'How’s Jesse? You tell him I think of him all the time.' When I told Jesse, it just made his day. How can you be a better man than that?"
When people hear Phyllis explode on the Paul Finebaum Show, they probably don't give too much thought about why she loves the Alabama Crimson Tide as much as she does. She's not the kind of fan who can dissect football down to the X's and O's, or who can debate whether a dual option quarterback is better or worse than a traditional pocket passer. In fact, I've intervened online when some truly ignorant cretin is rolling out some horrible comment about Phyllis on Twitter. (Yes, I know...don't feed the trolls. I just can't stop myself...) Phyllis is a bigger person than I am. She doesn't care what anyone says about her. All she cares about is that Bama wins, and the bigger the better. And woe betide--yes, the pun is intentional--the poor schmuck (famous or not) who disses her football team or its coach. In fact, her long-running on-air relationship with Paul Finebaum began when he was making Finebaum-esque comments about Stallings on his show, and she started calling to ''straighten him out."
"I’ve always been fiery for the Tide," Phyllis said. "A lot of people think it’s me cheering for the team. But it’s about what the University of Alabama gave to me, without even knowing that they did. Coach Stallings and Alabama football are what caused all that to happen. When Coach helped Jesse, he helped me. When he helped my son, my spirits lifted and I was a much better person for it."
So even though I bleed Tennessee orange and white, I have to admit--Phyllis's story has given me a small warm fuzzy spot for Alabama. But only for 51 weeks a year, and never during the seven days that include the third (or fourth) Saturday in October when we annually play.
But for Coach Gene Stallings, who took the time to help a young boy find his way out of a dark labyrinth of torture and teach him how to grow up into a happy, well-adjusted young man who is the absolute pride of his mother's life...well, that warm fuzzy is now huge, and limitless. Because of the love Gene Stallings bore for his own son with special needs, he was uniquely qualified to share that love with another youngster who desperately needed a hero. Stallings became that hero not only for his own son, but for Phyllis's son and for Phyllis as well.
Phyllis is right. How could anyone be a better man than that? Perhaps--just perhaps, Gene Stallings is a hero for all of us.
*The name of Phyllis's son has been changed at her request. So because I was so moved by his story, I substituted the name of my year-old grandson, who also had a rough start to life.
More Saturday Songs of the South are coming--the tales of how regular college football fans fell in love with their schools. You can check out my own Song of the South here. If you have a Song of the South you want to share, email me at kaantira(at)gmail.com with your own story, and I may tell yours in a future post.
For more information about Coach Gene Stallings, you can check out his official website.
To make an online donation to The Stallings Center RISE program, head over to their site. And if you can, please donate. Let's pay it forward in the name of this amazing man and his extraordinary capacity for love.