by Tom Pedulla –
When Joe Ryan recruits student-athletes for the track and field team at Manhattan College, he often searches for diamonds in the rough. He sure found one in Will Stallings of Sleepy Hollow. “If you have a fair amount of talent and you’ve got character, you can go a long, long way,” Ryan said of his approach.
Although Stallings was not highly sought after while he attended Sleepy Hollow High School, strength of character eventually led him to overcome two career-threatening hip surgeries to become the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s 400-meter outdoor champion this spring as a senior. In addition, he was part of Manhattan’s bronze-medal-winning 4×400 relay team and took fourth at 200 meters.
He has consistently been a member of the conference’s All-Academic team. His outstanding accomplishments in the classroom will allow him to attend medical school. The 6’ 1” Stallings immediately justified Ryan’s confidence as a freshman when his time of 46.5 seconds at 400 meters allowed him to rank 19th nationally. He suffered two torn hip labrums when he was a sophomore that ultimately required surgery and placed his athletic future in doubt.
“There were some dark days,” Stallings said, “where I really thought I wasn’t going to come back.”
He now refers to the injuries as a “blessing in disguise” because they led him to realize the importance of his studies. “Once the injury came around,” he said, “it was like, ‘Okay, what do I have left? What else do I have that I can control in my life? How else am I going to succeed and be the best person I can be?’ And it was academics.”
He majored in kinesiology with a double minor in chemistry and biology. He praised Manhattan’s small-school atmosphere, saying he benefited tremendously from the individual attention his professors gave him.
Stallings is set to attend the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, where four years of classroom instruction will be applied during a residency lasting three to four years. He aims to become a foot and ankle surgeon.
There is every reason to expect him to meet his goal. Two hip operations would have derailed many sprinters. “It’s a testament to his character that he was actually able to make it back,” Ryan said.
In a testament to his leadership, Stallings was a four-year captain for the Jaspers. “I’ve been coaching almost 30 years. He’s one of the best captains I ever had,” Ryan said. “He’s a tremendous communicator. He is a very good motivator and he understands the sport. It’s a great combination.”
Conditions could not have been much worse when Stallings took his last shot at the conference’s outdoor 400-meter title in the cold, wind, and rain at Monmouth College in New Jersey in early May. Ryan called on Stallings’ character one more time before the senior went off to chase the elusive gold medal. “The strong are going to win today,” Ryan told him.
“Let’s get it,” Stallings replied. He tore through the 400 meters in a season-best 48.39 seconds. “I tucked my head down and kept running to the line,” he said.
It was his way of forever distancing himself from those college coaches who did not think he was fast enough, of forever putting behind him hip injuries so severe that they made everyday life challenging.
“That 400 meters was the culmination of all my hard work before and after the surgery,” Stallings said. “It was a feeling I cannot describe in words. I was beyond ecstatic.”
In less than one minute, he had come incredibly far.