An Interview with Sally Cook

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Earlier this month, the biography of Alabama Coach Gene Stallings recounting the family’s experience raising his son John Mark was re-released by Back Bay Books. Another Season (spotlighted in The Reading Room last August) was originally published in 1997 but the new version includes an afterward penned by Coach Stallings in the wake of his son’s passing last year at the age of 46.

Another Season was co-written by former Associated Press reporter Sally Cook who had originally met the Stallings when researching a book about families raising children with developmental disabilities (John Mark Stallings was born with Down syndrome). A native of New York, Cook never intended to write a book involving football – much less Alabama football – but was so struck by the relationship between Coach Stallings and John Mark that she knew it was a story that had to be told.

Cook took some time recently to talk with Roll Bama Roll about John Mark, Coach Stallings and how the Another Season came to be a reality.

Roll Bama Roll: What was John Mark like?
Sally Cook: It is so hard to even begin to explain how many people didn’t just like him but loved him. He was fun and sweet ant that was part of his personality and he was a joy.  He taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about how to be patient. You were just caught in the moment when you were with him. He wasn’t thinking about tomorrow or the next day and when he used to say "come sit by me" to you then suddenly you were there in that moment with him.

RBR: What did Coach Stallings think of this project when you suggested it to him?
SC: To start with he did not want to do this book. He had no desire to do it whatsoever and I had to talk him into doing it. I called him once a week for six months. I knew how important this story was but he really didn’t know how important this story was… he had just been living it. Even though he had talked about Johnny to many people he was very much worried about the privacy of his family.

RBR: Why were you so persistent about doing the book?
SC: I just knew it was a great story. Here you have Gene Stallings, this bigger-than-life football coach who never wavered for a minute about not putting his son in an institution.  It’s about going against the tide, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s about standing up for something you believe in despite how unpopular it might seem or how scrutinized you are going to be. And as hard as that might be, it’s important if you feel this is something you have to do.  It is a story that really changed people’s perspective on disabilities.

RBR: How much did you know about Alabama football when you started working on the book?
SC: I went into this very green, I had to say. But I really didn’t know about everything that went along with doing something associated with Alabama football. It may have helped me somewhat. It was so fresh to me I wasn’t jaded about it at all. And while football is incredibly important it’s always the backdrop of the story. The story is about the powerful man and his son who has this serious disability.

RBR: When did you realize what you had gotten into in terms of the football side of it?
SC: I guess the first time I really started to understand what I had gotten myself into was when I went out to eat in a restaurant in Tuscaloosa and there was a giant life size cardboard cutout of Coach Stallings on display. There was this other time, shortly after that, I was in a restaurant on a Friday night in Birmingham with a friend of mine and I said to her "My gosh! Do you realize everyone is talking about Gene Stallings?" And she looked at me and said "Sally. It’s the Friday before a football game. Of course they are."

RBR: What was the relationship between Coach Stallings and Johnny like?
SC: It brought out this whole other side of [Coach Stallings]. In his career as a coach he was this strict formidable authority figure but when it came to Johnny it brought out this entire other side to him. If it hadn’t been for Johnny that really playful side of him would never have had an opportunity to ever emerge. Here he was raised in Texas and he was the best athlete and married the beauty queen but then to have this child with these special needs.  And the adoration Johnny had for his father was incredible as well. 

RBR: How would you describe Johnny’s interest in Alabama football?
SC: It wasn’t just a connection with the program as a fan or just as the son of the coach; he had his own connections with Alabama football and the community through his work at The Bryant Museum and the RISE School. Partially because of that he was never isolated. A lot of children with developmental disabilities end up getting very isolated in their adulthood. Johnny didn’t because he had these jobs and these interests that went beyond his immediate family as well. He had his own life and that’s a powerful example to others who have similar disabilities.

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