There are only a few people who can walk up to Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban with confidence and give him a handshake. After all, he’s an intimidating man known for only smiling when his team makes it to the end of a National Championship game and comes out victorious. However, that intimidation factor eases just a little bit when he sees Walt Gary, 34, and talks shop with him before the next game.
In a recent video done by Southern Living, Alabama super fan Walt is seen joking around with Saban and other equally intimidating Alabama players — could you casually walk up to a 6-foot-tall, 21-year-old who is 200 pounds of pure muscle and used to tackling people at full speed?
We didn’t think so.
“I know we gave up 19 points in that last game, and I know you weren’t happy about that,” Walt says to Saban in the video. “We’re gonna fix it and do it right.”
“Did you talk to the players and tell them what they need to do?” Saban answers, fighting back that rarely seen grin. But Walt, in his unofficial role as team coordinator, had already briefed the players on what they need to improve on before the next game.
Keep in mind, there are a lot of the Alabama faithful. The state is roughly halved between those who love the Tide and the ones who cheer for the other college across the state. It would be near blasphemy to bring that school up in a story about Alabama.
But, Walt is different. Sure, he has Down syndrome, but that’s not what makes him different. Where Walt stands out is his dedication to Alabama football. Employers everywhere would kill to have someone with as much enthusiasm and drive as Walt.
Attitude Is Everything
Perhaps the reason Walt is so treasured by Saban and the Alabama players is because he’s a fighter, and that team likes people who never give up. He’s had open heart surgery four times, but he still focuses on the positives of life.
When he’s asked about Down syndrome, he tells people he has Up syndrome instead, his mother told Southern Living.
She also notes that he’s always happy, even flirting with nurses and listening to country music after having open heart surgery, unless one horrible, awful thing happens: Alabama loses.
Again, this is a team that attracts followers so loyal they’ve been known to go to the hospital when their team is down a few points in a particularly important game. If you’re not in the South, you might not understand the delicate balance we have between eating fried food and keeping our blood pressure level during the Iron Bowl.
Walt is no different. He likes that big Alabama win as much as the dedicated alum who come out of the Capstone. He even prays for the team before they go out on the field, although it’s not known if he’s praying for safety or for another win.
Friends in High Places
Walt considers Saban to be his second best friend, falling in order right after God, while other players admire him for his upbeat attitude.
“God will make sure that I go to work tomorrow and have a good day and smile,” Walt said. “My saying is: The quicker He smiles, the quicker I smile.”
Minkah Fitzpatrick, the devout-Christian defensive back for the Tide, said that Walt is always happy.
“He’s always smiling, always cheering us up and making sure we’re all right,” Minkah said.
“We’re always going to be there for him, and he’s always going to be there for us.”
Stallings to Saban
Walt was raised in Tuscaloosa, where growing up as an Alabama fan was just part of life.
Natives call Tuscaloosa T-Town, short for Title Town, a moniker earned after the team started winning National Championships in a myriad of sports.
It wasn’t until his mother met former Head Coach Gene Stallings, the last Alabama coach to win a National Championship, and asked if she could bring Walt to a few practices.
Stallings was friends with Walt’s grandfather, so he agreed. That was 22 years ago, and Walt hasn’t missed a Thursday practice ever since.
There’s a special bond between the city of Tuscaloosa and the Down syndrome community that started with Coach Stallings. His son, John Mark Stallings, was born with Down syndrome in 1962. During his 46-year life, he changed the way the city sees people with Down syndrome. John Mark was, in a lot of ways, the Walt Gary before Walt Gary existed. The city already had the RISE Center, a renowned school for special needs children, but Stallings donated enough money to expand the program to include an employment program for adults with special needs.
Just like Walt, John Mark was also a big fan of the Crimson Tide. In 2005, the team dedicated the equipment room to John Mark, and to this day it is known as the “John Mark Stallings Equipment Room.”
The town rallied even more when the Russian government refused to let a couple from Tuscaloosa adopt a boy with Down syndrome. The Kremlin didn’t know what hit them when the Tide Nation took to emailing and tweeting every celebrity and government official they could think of to take on the story. This story has a happy ending, and the boy now lives with a great family in the heart of Tuscaloosa.
As soon as Southern Living’s video was posted, people took to SEC message boards to talk about their interactions with Walt. You can read some of the comments here, but the overall consensus is that Walt makes Title Town a better place.