The hardest year of Devon Gales’ life

This article was posted online at FOX Sports on March 17, 2017.

Devon Gales couldn’t sleep that night.

Instead he ran pass routes between the twin beds in his hotel room, sometimes stopping for a few minutes to flick through TV channels. A sophomore walk-on at Southern University, tomorrow he was playing against Georgia. He’d only played sparingly during the first three games of the season, but on Sept. 26, 2015, he saw an opportunity. Before the sun came up he got down on one knee. “Dear God,” he said. “Please give me the strength to perform. I want the people to remember me.”

As the second half started, Southern — down 20-6 — was under no illusion it was going to beat the No. 7 team in the country. This game, and its $1 million payday, was merely a chance to fund the program. The Jaguars were sacrificial lambs, but that didn’t mean they had to be embarrassed. Southern was receiving the ball, and Devon lined up on the 30-yard line. He had played only once in the first half, the opening kickoff. Now, Devon tensed up.

“I don’t know what it was,” Devon said. “But I just had this feeling all game. It was like He was trying to tell me something.”

Marshall Morgan was Georgia’s star placekicker, first-team all-SEC in 2013. A senior, he held the conference record for consecutive field goals. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he could have played any position on the field in high school, and he chose kicking. He ran up to the ball and slammed his right foot through it. He loved the feeling that came through his body when he hit it just right. He looked up — high and deep.

As the Southern ball carrier broke the first wave of tacklers, Marshall surged forward. Every year he would make three or four touchdown-saving tackles. From the corner of his eye he also spotted a blocker — 5-foot-7 Devon Gales — making a beeline toward him, arms extended. “I planted my foot, and braced myself,” Marshall said. At the moment of impact Gales thrust his shoulders forward and lowered his head. Marshall too dipped his helmet. For a brief moment their kinetic energy was aligned.

Six hundred miles away, in Baton Rouge, Tanisha Gales’ heart stopped. She was watching the broadcast on TV along with her husband and Devon’s father, Donnie. The cameras followed the ball and missed the collision between Devon and Marshall. The announcers told the audience a Southern player was hurt on the play, then the broadcast broke away for commercials. Tanisha wasn’t Devon’s biological mother, but she raised him from the time he was three years old. Her motherly intuition sharpened over time, and here she whispered under her breath, “I think it’s Devon. I know it is.”

She met Devon’s father while they were college students. He was a star fullback at Southern in the mid-90’s, and they were a football family. Of course there were times she wondered about the dangers of the sport, but what would Devon be without it? Painfully shy, football gave him a voice. When he dashed past corners, or hit blockers, he was heard. She took a deep breath — the commercial break was the longest two and half minutes of her life.

On the field Devon, lying on his back, saw everything. Georgia’s trainer Ron Courson was standing over him, prodding his body. “Can you get up, son?” he asked. “I want to, sir, but I can’t,” Devon said. Then he laughed. It was all so absurd. Moments ago he was sprinting. Maybe, he thought, he’d finally fallen asleep, and now he was floating through a dreamscape. What maniacal things the mind will do!

Marshall returned to the Georgia sideline and mindlessly kicked one ball into the nylon after another. Play continued and someone yelled something in his direction, but he could only hear the voice in his head. What have I done?

In Baton Rouge, Tanisha got confirmation that Devon was the injured player when the commercial break was over. She and Donnie normally went to every game, but Athens was a long drive. She was now kicking herself she wasn’t there.

About an hour later, her phone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital in Athens.

“I have your son here, and we’re running some tests. I’m going to have one of the doctors call you later to update you, OK?”

“Listen,” Tanisha said, squeezing the phone tight. “The only thing I need to know is if I need to be on the first flight to Georgia or not.”

There was a long pause. “Yes ma’am, you do.”

*****

Sometimes Devon would thank the high powers that he was even alive. When he was born, most of his intestines were exposed, a rare condition known as Gastroschisis, and the first nine months of his life were spent in a hospital. “He’s a miracle child,” Tanisha likes to say. As a toddler he walked around with tubes running out of his nose and rarely spoke.

When he failed the third grade, his parents became worried. “We got him tested and realized he was hearing impaired,” Tanisha said. “He didn’t know what the teacher was saying.”

Devon isolated himself and was bullied, sinking into his thoughts. Football was his great escape. A beautiful meritocracy, every play gave him a chance to earn respect, and fit in. But his growth was stunted — he was a runt compared to the other boys on his junior high team. Slowly, however, his speed caught up to his desire and he earned All-District honors at Central High School in Baton Rouge.

“I’ve coached thousands of players,” his high school coach, Sid Edwards, said. “And I’ve never seen a kid work as hard as him. He’d be the first to practice, last to leave, the only one in the film room, and he did it all with a smile.”

Almost no universities sent recruiting letters, but Devon wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Southern. “I sat down with the coaching staff,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to sell a 140-pound receiver. But I said, ‘Trust me, you need this guy in your locker room.’”

Devon had defied every odd simply to play on the Southern team, then to line up against an SEC powerhouse in Georgia. Now, he was on the operating table inside Athens Regional Medical Center fighting for his life.

The morning after the game, Tanisha, Donnie and Devon’s biological mother, Amy, had all arrived and were pacing the hospital hallway. “It was a blur,” Tanisha said. Georgia assistant coach Brian Schottenheimer and his wife, as well as the team pastor, joined them in prayer. They didn’t yet know it, but Devon had shattered his C6 vertebra, and the C4 and C5 were pinching his spinal cord. Doctors would put 20 screws in the C6 and insert two rods into the back of his neck to stabilize his spine.

When Devon woke up after the four-hour surgery, he was struggling to land in his new reality. “I didn’t really know what was going on,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was anything too serious.”

Meanwhile, on campus, Marshall was in his own daze. “I got a call that (Devon) was in the hospital and it was really serious,” he said. “I started freaking out.”

He and Devon had come from different worlds — Marshall was raised in a middle-class beach community in Florida. But in some ways they were the same. They were both polite, quiet, and maniacally competitive.

Then-Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who liked to refer to Marshall as his “son,” sat him down for the rest of the Southern game after the collision. At one point, Georgia was in field-goal range, but instead coach Richt called for the team to go for it on fourth. “He thought I was mentally unstable,” Marshall said.

By Sunday, Marshall’s shock turned into sadness, then guilt. Most of the Georgia players went to a reception in the conference room at the hospital to wish condolences to the Gales family and Marshall decided to come along as well. Devon wasn’t accepting visitors yet, so Marshall stood in the conference room. He could feel Tanisha’s eyes tracking him around the room, and he stood back from the crowd. “I assumed his family hated me,” he said.

Soon she walked towards him and then she reached out her arms. “Are you Marshall?” she asked. He nodded.

“Listen, baby,” she told him. “It could have happened to anyone. You know we don’t blame you, right?” She then opened her arms and he leaned forward and sobbed in her shoulder.

Marshall left without seeing Devon, and the guilt sat on him. Perhaps there was even a collective mourning for the entire team. Georgia lost three of its next four and dropped from seventh in the country to out of the rankings entirely. Marshall tried to compartmentalize his emotions, but it began to spill over onto the field.

Kicking was his calling, but it was also therapeutic. Marshall’s parents were divorced shortly after he was born and he spent much of his youth trying to build, then rebuild, a relationship with his father. To cope he turned to placekicking. If he could make a ball travel in a straight line over and over, he figured his own life would follow that same narrow path. But as his thoughts wandered, so too did the ball. He decided he needed to call then one man who could help, Bryant Gantt.

*****

An hour’s drive away from Athens, Devon had started rehab in Atlanta’s Shepherd Center. He now had moderate control over his arms, and partial control of his fingers, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. He maneuvered in an electric wheelchair around the two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta he’d moved into with his mother and younger sister. Donnie stayed back at their home in Baton Rouge.

Outwardly Devon maintained his omnipresent smile, but inwardly he was feeling isolated. “It started to hit me when I was doing the therapy and I couldn’t move like I wanted,” he said.

Often in the middle of the night, inside his sparsely decorated room, he’d turn on his iPad and re-watch the Georgia game. He would focus on his final play, then hit rewind and play it again, hoping to will himself back in time and lead with his shoulder instead of his head.

One of the few people that visited him regularly was Gantt. A large man with a round, welcoming face, Gantt was a former Georgia outside linebacker in the 80’s and the current “Director of Player Wellness,” but really he’s the team’s fixer — the Olivia Pope of Georgia football. When freshmen players arrive on campus, his number is the first one they’re given. If anyone is stopped by police, or simply needs someone to listen to them, he’s the guy they would call.

The first time he saw Devon was two days after his surgery, lying in his hospital bed. “I was expecting to see someone in tears. Instead I said, ‘Wow, this kid is smiling and thankful we were there,’” Gantt said. “It struck me that this kid is special.”

At the same time Gantt was also helping Marshall unravel his complicated emotions. The two had a history that dates back to Marshall’s sophomore season, when he was suspended a game for boating under the influence while on vacation at a nearby lake. Gantt said that Marshall “felt really bad about embarrassing the team,” and Gantt helped him take the necessary steps to return to the good graces of Coach Richt. It was a relatively quick fix, but this situation, Gantt knew, was more complicated. Gantt decided it would be beneficial if Marshall and Devon met. They would no longer be ghosts lingering in each other’s minds.

Nearly two months after the collision, Devon was wheeled onto the field at Sanford Stadium before the Georgia-Georgia Southern game. The Bulldog players decided to dedicate the game to Devon, wearing a decal with his number 33 on the back of their helmets. As each Georgia athlete walked along the sidelines toward the locker room, they took turns shaking Devon’s hand and patting him on the head. Finally Marshall arrived. He reached down and hugged Devon.

Since the accident, Devon has lived in two separate dimensions. He can feel Marshall leaning down, he sees him, but he can only move his arms slightly. At the same time, Devon envisions himself jumping out of his wheelchair, standing up and grabbing Marshall square across the shoulders, embracing him against his chest. This happens in flashes throughout each day; he’s walking over to the fridge, or bending over to pick up the remote. Devon’s mind hasn’t stopped telling his legs to run, or his arms to hug.

“Good to see you,” Devon says, as if they’re old buddies. Marshall nods. Neither really knows what to say. They share a smile. And soon Marshall continues to the locker room. Devon strides alongside him and turns to face the open football field — home.

Then he doesn’t. He’s still in his wheelchair, motionless as ever, as the last player passes him.

*****

Devon could feel the rain in his fingers and arms before it ever touched the pavement. He and his family had traveled from Atlanta back home to Baton Rouge to celebrate his mother’s birthday this past August. His grandmother and cousins came. “It was a full house,” Tanisha says.

Their home wasn’t in the designated flood area of Baton Rouge, but soon the light Saturday morning rain turned violent, sheets of water pouring from the sky. “I told them I wanted to go back to Atlanta,” Devon says. But by then it was too late, water was seeping into the house, and the streets around them were deluged. The worst floods in the city’s history were just beginning.

For months, Devon had been rehabbing daily at the Shepherd Center. He’d seen two other men arrive in wheelchairs with similar, though less severe, injuries and walk out in a matter of months. This gave him hope, and by May, Tanisha recorded a video of him moving his right leg a few inches, then his left. “We were so excited,” she said.

Devon was determined to return to his old life and get back on the field. He told his college coach to hold a spot on the team for him. Doctors optimistically gave him a 50/50 chance of regaining feeling in his legs, but all he heard was “chance.” But by the time he was holed up in his parents’ home in Baton Rouge, he was still largely unable to move his lower limbs, and the feeling in his legs was still mostly void. Even without sensing the water, though, he could see it creeping up the spokes of his wheelchair.

Donnie sprung into action, picked up Devon and placed him in the front seat of his truck, his wheelchair in the back. On the other side of the highway there were buses waiting to take people to a shelter, but the topography of the streets changed so drastically in their neighborhood. One block was dry and impossible for a boat to pass through, while another was flooded, impossible for a car to drive. Donnie hit the gas pedal, but in his haste barged into a tree, trapping the truck. They attached a chain from the bed to another truck, hoping to pull it out. But it wouldn’t budge.

Devon was helpless. He pulled out his phone and texted Gantt, “Please come get me out of here!”

Gantt was at football practice in Athens and didn’t realize there was flooding going on in Louisiana. “I thought he was joking at first.” After he checked the news, he bought the family tickets to get back to Atlanta from Baton Rouge, but they had to get to the airport.

Devon was alone in the front seat of the trapped truck as the world raged around him. Rain unfurled in loud drum beats. The water rising. It was biblical. Devon shut his eyes, and tried to remain calm, it was as if He was trying to tell him something again.

Donnie and Tanisha, holding garbage bags of their belongings over their shoulders, trudged through waist-high water and alerted a friend with an 18-wheeler to come help get Devon to safety, but that truck was halted in the fast-moving river that had formed on their block. With no options, Donnie again attached a friend’s pick-up and blasted the gas pedal. Miraculously the truck holding Devon broke free, and they drove through the torrential downpour, past the waiting buses, to the Baton Rouge airport.

Devon made it out, but he understood then that his life would never go back to the way it was. Things fall apart. Acceptance is hard. “I wasn’t scared anymore,” he said. “After all the stuff I’ve been through.”

*****

A few weeks ago Devon returned to Baton Rouge for the first time since the flooding. There was just drywall and no flooring, so Devon’s parents blew up air mattresses and made the most of it. But there was an ominous feeling. He had been continuing his rehab at Shepherd, but there was little progress. At the end of summer he moved his toes a few centimeters but nothing more. Tanisha drove Devon back to Atlanta from Baton Rouge late on a Sunday night, as September 25 turned into September 26 — the one-year anniversary of the collision. “That was probably my lowest point,” Devon said.

His old coaches and teammates called to encourage him. “Remember, you have a beautiful soul,” his high school coach told him. But it did little to brighten his mood.

This past weekend Devon attended the Georgia-Tennessee game at Sanford Stadium. He arrived early and members of the coaching staff and their family greeted him. “They told me they were here for me, and they’re praying for me.”

When the game started, Marshall texted him. They had stayed in touch, and Marshall had just been cut by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills a month earlier and came back to Athens to start a new life. He would still sometimes wonder if Devon harbored ill feelings toward him. One day a friend sent him the recording of a local interview Devon did in Louisiana. The journalist asked Devon the same question. “No,” he said. “I love Marshall.”

“That felt really good,” Marshall said. He soon found a job in wealth management and proposed to his girlfriend. One of his first wedding invites was Devon. As the game was ending, with Georgia in the lead, Devon and Marshall tried to find each other in the stadium, but Tanisha decided it was time to get Devon back home before the crowd spilled out into the streets. On the way back home, Devon followed the game on social media before his eyes began to close.

When they got near Atlanta he heard that Georgia lost the game on an improbable Hail Mary with no time left. “I was devastated,” he said. Later that night he got a call from Gantt.

“Tell the guys they’ll be OK. It’s a long season,” Devon said.

“I will. That was a rough one, how you doing?” Gantt said.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” Devon said. “I feel like the future is going to be really great.”