After most turbulent year of his life, Southern's Devon Gales still here — and still smiling

This article was written by Luke Johnson and published for The Advocate.  For the original article, click here.

ATLANTA — Here it comes. It always does.

Devon, how are you feeling?

Devon Gales, a dyed-in-the-wool goofball, is ready to pounce on the inevitable question. He always had comedic timing, but he knows low-hanging fruit is coming. At this point, he can close his eyes, swing and knock it out of the park as the laugh track plays.

So, how are you feeling, Devon?

“Well,” he says through his impish grin, waiting just a beat for the baby pause that perfectly sets up the punch line. “I can’t feel my legs.”

Rim shot.

He’s had plenty of practice on this routine.

It has been a year since Devon Gales lost feeling in his legs. A year since he lay motionless at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, and wondered why all of his Southern University teammates were standing over him. A year since he calmly made the same type of joke when he was asked to move his toes as tens of thousands watched in hushed silence.

“The craziest year I’ve ever had in my life,” Devon said.

“Crazy” is a good word to sum up Devon’s past year. “Tragic” would be another.

A year ago, he woke up as a healthy 20-year-old college football player, getting set to play in one of those big-time environments kids dream about. That night, calling his parents right before he went into surgery to repair a shattered C6 vertebra, he cried when his father told him he loved him.

Now, he’s at some point on a road of an unspecified distance, hoping that by the end he’s able to inspire others to go on their own journeys without fear.

The significance of most of Devon’s past year is difficult to comprehend unless one views the world from his seat, because people have a hard time appreciating easy things until they become difficult. People don’t think about which muscles to use when feeding themselves.

They just do it. Devon has worked himself to exhaustion just so he can loosely hold a fork.

It’s the little battles, the ones he used to not think about, by which Devon measures his progress. On the 352nd day since his injury, there was a breakthrough here at the Shepherd Center, where he has done virtually all of his rehab: He activated his hips and thrust them forward under his own power for the first time since Sept. 26 of last year.

He celebrates by stashing away his half-eaten bag of peanut M&Ms and convincing his stepmother, Tish, they need to go to Chick-fil-A across the street. Tish groans about ruining the workout she just finished. Devon says he needs to gain weight. Another little battle won.

That is not to say there haven’t been monumental moments that have tested the Gales family. Those are just harder to joke about.

Tish misses her kids at Central High, where she taught special education. She may not be Devon’s biological mom, but she has been there since Devon can remember, and that didn’t change with the injury. She left her job and the rest of her life behind to care for Devon in Atlanta.

Donny, Devon’s father, remained in Baton Rouge to continue working at his job with UPS, largely because his insurance is putting Devon through the therapy he needs to win the little battles. For much of the past year, Donny has lived with his youngest son, Dalen, and has been apart from his wife, his oldest son and his daughter, Teah, who all live in Atlanta.

The separation is hard on the family. When Donny receives a phone call during an interview, his ringtone is Ray Charles singing “Georgia On My Mind.”

The home Donny stays in is the same one Devon used to terrorize as a rambunctious kid, but it’s barely recognizable now. The flood that ravaged the Baton Rouge area was indiscriminate; it did not care about the trial the Gales family had been through. Devon was there when the flooding hit; he was back with Tish for her 41st birthday. He made jokes about his inability to swim. He felt helpless as he sat in the car while the family tried to escape the rising water.

The home has since been gutted, the walls torn out four feet from the floor. The things that used to furnish the house are destined for a landfill now, along with many of the gifts Devon accumulated from well-wishers. Pretty much all that remains is the mattress from Donny and Tish’s old bed. Donny pulls that mattress in from outside and sets it up in what used to be the dining room when he can find the time to sleep.

The past year has taken Devon’s ability to walk and run. It has robbed him of time spent with some of his closest family and friends in the prime of his life. It saw his home destroyed.

The past year was an unmitigated disaster.

And here is Devon Gales, cracking jokes about it all.

Is he in on some secret? Has the past year been a grand pause for an even grander punch line?

Maybe. Or maybe the past year hasn’t just been about taking away from Devon. Maybe it has provided for him, too, in life’s own mysterious way, in the form of perspective.

“It gets hard sometimes, but who doesn’t have a hard time at times?” Devon said. “Everybody goes through their hardship. What do you do after it? It’s how you take it.”

Devon has a plan for what he will do after his hardship. First, he’s got to get through taking it.

It has been a crazy year. Devon is still smiling.

The injury

Athletic trainer Lovie Taborn met Devon on her ninth day at Southern. The young receiver came in to complain, ironically enough, about a sore neck. She will never forget her 10th day on the job: game day in Athens, Georgia.

The Jaguars were getting walloped. Sony Michel’s 58-yard touchdown run gave Georgia a 48-6 lead with about two minutes to go in the third quarter, and the course of Devon’s life took a hard turn on the ensuing kickoff.

Southern return man Mike Jones took Marshall Morgan’s kick out of the end zone and weaved through traffic toward Georgia’s sideline. Devon was an upfield blocker on the play. He ran back toward Jones and was passed by him around the 20-yard line. Devon swiveled his head to find a target, zeroed in on Morgan and accelerated.

As Jones was being pushed out of bounds, Gales lowered his head, making contact with Morgan’s shoulder. He immediately went limp, his feet dragging as Morgan flung his weight to the ground.

The injury has taken many things from Devon, but it did not take his memory of what happened. He never lost consciousness.

“I just felt everything lock up on me,” Devon said. “I wasn’t able to move. I was like, ‘This is weird.’ Then I tried to get up, and I was able to lift my neck, but I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t feel anything else below that.”

Southern running back Lenard Tillery had a good view of the play. He remembers seeing the hit, seeing Devon fall and waiting for his teammate to get up.

“I’ve seen plays where they’re just laying down and then they come back and they’ll be back at it,” Tillery said. “I’ve seen guys go straight down and look bad. But when I saw him go down, he went directly to the ground.”

The injury happened on Georgia’s sideline, so Bulldogs staff was first to arrive, led by Georgia director of sports medicine Ron Courson. The Gales family is adamant that the quick actions of Courson and the Georgia staff allowed Devon to have the amount of function he does today.

When Taborn got to Devon from the Southern sideline, she couldn’t believe how calm he was. Taborn remembers repeatedly telling Devon to stay calm — before she realized she might’ve been speaking to herself.

“Ron asked him, ‘Can you move your toes?’ and he said, ‘Are my toes moving?’ ” Taborn recalled. “Ron said, ‘Can you feel this touch?’ And he said, ‘Are you touching me?’ ”

Donny and Tish were watching the game from home. The medical staff obscured Devon’s uniform number on the broadcast, but they knew who it was. They could see the black ankle brace Tish had given Devon before the trip.

Because Taborn had not even been at Southern two weeks, she had never interacted with the Gales family and only barely knew Devon from the night before. She was the one who picked up the phone to confirm what the family already knew to be true and the uncertainty of everything else.

Devon was stabilized on a spinal board, taken off the field on a cart and rushed to Athens Regional Medical Center, where the suspicion of a cervical injury was explored by X-ray. Nobody on the field or watching at home knew how serious the injury was. The teams finished the game with a scoreless fourth quarter, and the Jaguars got ready for a long bus ride home.

They did not know just how long that ride would be.

Southern coach Dawson Odums was hopeful for good news when he got the bus to stop at the hospital. Devon’s teammates were hopeful they’d be able to see him. Odums got off the bus alone.

“I went in, and that’s when the news was really broken to me,” Odums said.

Devon was paralyzed. He could not feel anything below his neck. He would require immediate surgery.

“When I came back out of the hospital, I broke the news to our team,” Odums said. “They were all still on the bus.”

Silence prevailed on the nine-hour return trip to Baton Rouge.

The bus was two members short.

Devon stayed for surgery, and Taborn stayed by his side.

“Everybody was in disbelief. … You don’t expect to go somewhere and leave somebody behind,” Tillery said. “It was a memory that guys don’t want to hold too close. That whole ride, you’re just thinking. You go to sleep, wake up and forget about it for a second, then two seconds later you’re back in the same boat. ‘What if this didn’t happen? What if I was out there?’ ”

In its normal alignment, the spine is curved, which helps it absorb impact. When Devon’s helmet hit Morgan’s shoulder pad, his neck was straightened, sending the full force of the collision through the long axis of his spine. His C6 vertebra essentially exploded in what is called a burst fracture.

“Oh, yeah, I broke that sucker,” Devon said.

When Devon found out what happened, the hospital personnel asked him whether he wanted to call anyone. He called his parents. Donny told Devon he loved him, and Devon started to cry.

“He caught me off guard,” Devon said. “I wasn’t ready for that one. I just broke down.”

The game was over by 2:11 p.m. local time in Baton Rouge. By 3:15, the Gales family had a plane ticket arranged for them. About two hours later, they were in the air. Sometime around midnight, they arrived at Athens Regional. Devon did not remember seeing them until the morning, right before his surgery.

There are seven vertebrae in the cervical spine, putting the sixth the second-closest to the bottom. Tish said the break required 20 screws to be reassembled, and the bone fragments had to be reinserted with a box holding them all together.

Devon went into surgery around noon, and four hours later he emerged with a box, a bunch of screws and two steel rods in his neck.

Devon spent two days in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Taborn stayed with him and his family until he was transferred to the Shepherd Center on Sept. 29. Near complete strangers were brought close by tragedy. But also brought close by something seemingly so innocuous, but a gesture that was so, so large — and so, so human.

Taborn started laughing while recalling those days. She said the laughter is understandable for anyone who has ever met Devon.

“I was just getting here, so we’re just making relationships, you know?” Taborn said. “I would say that Devon and I had to bond in the hospital over ChapStick. For a little while, he couldn’t drink anything. His lips were so dry. So I had to put ChapStick on his lips. It’s very trivial, but it’s funny to me looking back on it. We had to bond over that ChapStick.”

The recovery

There are ideas of what recovery from a paralyzing injury looks like. It’s either determined or joyless. Then there is a picture. In this particular one, it’s Devon in his wheelchair, his hands in boxing gloves. He is smiling. His eyes are focused on a target and they, too, are smiling.

He is boxing with trainer Dan Dale during the Day Program phase of his recovery at the Shepherd Center. He is clearly having fun.

“The best way that I can describe the Shepherd Center is that it’s like Disney World for a hospital,” Taborn said. “You know how they say Disney feels magical? Shepherd feels magical.”

The Shepherd Center is a sprawling complex on Peachtree Street just north of downtown Atlanta. It was founded in 1975 by Harold and Alana Shepherd after their son, James, was paralyzed from the neck down in a surfing accident. Back those 40 years ago, the only place they could take their son for specialized care was in Colorado, so they sought to create a place more accessible for those injured in this part of of the country.

Now the Shepherd Center is considered the nation’s premier rehabilitation hospital for patients recovering from brain and spinal injuries. In a sense, if the injury had to occur, Devon was lucky it happened 70 miles from here.

He is on his fourth round of therapy at the Shepherd Center. There was inpatient care followed by the Day Program, which is aimed at increasing Devon’s ability to function outside the hospital.

Then there was outpatient therapy and Devon’s current program, Beyond Therapy, which focuses on “weaker muscles and nerve connections that may have been ignored in the initial phases of recovery,” according to the Shepherd Center’s website.

Devon, Tish and Teah live in a condo about 10 minutes away from the Shepherd Center. They’re not sure how long they will have to be there, because the timeframe is determined by Devon’s indefinite stay at the Shepherd Center. They are able to pay for the home thanks to a fund Southern set up in Devon’s name after the injury.

He has progressed a long way since Sept. 29 of last year, when he was admitted to the Shepherd Center. Tish attributes this, in part, to the attitude at the facility.

“Their energy, as soon as you walk in the door, you can feel it,” Tish said. “That helps them to come alive and try to push and do everything they can to get through it. If you didn’t know any better, you would think all the therapists were on Red Bull or something, because as soon as you get in, you’re coming in and going straight to work.”

Devon started small. In a way, he had to reprogram most of his body’s motor functions. Because he was an athlete, his body was fit. He just had to find a way to teach those muscles how to work again.

It was a slow and exhausting process. He would work with the Shepherd Center staff for eight hours a day with a lunch break in between. Often, he was too tired to eat.

“Instead of eating, he’d have his head on the table,” Tish said.

His work has paid off. When he first started, he was not able to move from the neck down. Now he’s working on transferring his weight from one place to the next. He can move his hips and his fingers, which were big breakthroughs.

He can’t walk yet, but he feels like he’s getting there. It’s hard to describe, but Devon said he has feeling in his legs — it’s just that his feeling is on the inside.

He can’t detect external stimulus on his lower extremities yet. That’s how one of the Shepherd Center nurses got away with painting Devon’s toenails pink while he was asleep. She knew he couldn’t feel it and wouldn’t wake up, so it was payback for when he was goofing off and scared her by shouting as she was about to administer a shot.

Devon is not alone. There are people from around the country dealing with a similar situation, some worse. There are shoulders to lean on, and they’re all at the same lowered height as Devon’s.

“There’s quite a few people here that I keep in contact with, because they had similar injuries,” Devon said. “They say theirs took a long time — two years, three years; it just depends on their body. Everything’s going to come back; there’s just no telling when.

“I put that in perspective. My body is going to heal; it’s going to come back — it just takes time. They give me their cue on what they did to stay motivated. That keeps me going.”

Devon recently took a week of vacation from his therapy to go home. He stopped by to see some of his former teammates at Southern the day before the Jaguars demolished Alabama State 64-6. He was his usual self around his teammates, a behavior Tish constantly refers to as “the same old Gales.”

It’s a shock to the system, in a good way.

“You might be thinking, ‘I’m having a rough day, I’m having a bad day,’ ” former teammate Jamal Boulden said. “Then you see Gales, and he’s so up and happy. How can you be down? There’s a man in a wheelchair, and he’s one of the happiest guys around campus, smiling all the time and cracking jokes.

“When I see Gales, it lifts my spirits immediately. Especially if I see him and he’s still smiling. It’s like, how could I frown? Why would I frown?”

What the teammates didn’t see was where Devon was calling home. His easy smile might’ve been even more surprising.

The flood.

There are stories in Devon’s scars.

There’s the long horizontal scar on his abdomen. That one has been with him the longest. He was born with his intestines on the outside of his body, requiring multiple operations that did not allow him to leave the hospital until he neared his first birthday.

That is why he has the words “Miracle Child” inscribed on his chest, one of his 14 tattoos. Even though she gave him grief about the ink when he got it, that tattoo is Tish’s favorite.

It has taken on added significance these days.

“He’s been struggling in life since he came into the world,” Tish said.

There are the scars on his neck from the surgery a year ago, when doctors inserted a box holding Devon’s vertebra through the front of his neck, then flipped him over and put two steel rods in through the front to align his spine.

There is the scar on his upper lip, peeking out from his mustache. Tish said that came from when he “kissed the mailbox” playing football as a teenager. His tooth, root and all, flew out through his upper lip. Donny had to keep the tooth in his pocket while a dentist opened up his clinic after hours to patch up Devon.

That mailbox sits out in front of the house where Devon grew up. Most of the mailboxes in that neighborhood are standing next to heaps of what used to be his neighbors’ homes.

It was raining when Devon, Tish and Teah made the roughly eight-hour drive from Atlanta back to Baton Rouge for Tish’s 41st birthday last month. Devon called Bryant Gantt before they even crossed into Mississippi to jokingly tell him it was flooding and they needed to come back.

Gantt is the program coordinator at Georgia. He has developed a close relationship with the Gales family since Devon’s injury, making it a point to visit the family in Atlanta at least once a week — one part of a larger, mutual love affair between Georgia and Gales, with the school and its fans supporting Gales all along the way.

Gantt shrugged off the message about the flood. Devon was being Devon. The next day, he returned from practice to see a few missed calls from Devon. This time, it was serious. There were pictures of the rising water.

The day the Gales family home flooded was harrowing. The water started creeping into their house. They had to cut through a tree line in a neighbor’s backyard to get to higher ground, and by that time, the water was so high it was threatening to get into Donny’s truck.

Devon sat in that truck with Dalen and Teah. He watched Tish operating an ATV to help people and momentarily allowed negative thoughts to creep in.

“I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do but sit there and watch, make jokes and say I can’t swim,” Devon said. “It was frustrating to see that I couldn’t really help nobody, seeing everybody that needed help. I was basically saying I needed help.”

The weeks after have been tough, too. Donny works until 7 p.m., gets home and goes back to work on his house until he falls asleep. The house is still in bad shape. Whatever the family could salvage is under an alcove in the backyard, including the mattress Donny sleeps on.

It has been a 100-pound wrench thrown into a family machine that was already struggling with the events of the past year. Their response has been to pull it out, joke about its weight and keep moving forward with the idea that everything is going to be fine.

“We’ve been through a lot in this year, now,” Donny said. “It’s been a lot. You can look at where we’re at now, the house is coming back and his feeling is starting to come back. We’re just keeping our faith. When you don’t have faith and you don’t believe in the Lord and you don’t believe things are going to happen, that’s when you’re going to start to have problems.”

There are walls again in the Gales family home. The drywall was just recently installed, identified by a four-foot swath of white paint below what used to be mocha-colored walls throughout the house. That was mostly done through Donny’s hard work.

Donny had to stay home. He had to take care of Dalen and fix the house and work the job that provides for Devon’s care. Gantt arranged for Devon, Tish and Teah to fly back to Atlanta. He was there at the airport to pick them up.

If he were a stranger, he might have been surprised to see the smiles on their faces.

“One thing his mom always said is that she knows God isn’t going to put anything on them that they can’t bear, so they’ve been taking everything in stride and keeping the faith,” Gantt said. “I’ve got to commend their family about how they’ve been handling these two tragedies in staying positive and keeping the faith. That’s one of the things that keeps me going.”

The future

Two concepts have governed how the Gales family has gotten through the past year: faith and testimony. They are intertwined. They struggle to conceive how they would have endured what has happened in their lives without faith. The testimony is an important homage to the faith that allows them to endure.

“People say things happen for a reason,” Devon said. “I think this happened for a reason. I guess, to show other people to not take things for granted. He is using me for something larger than I ever would’ve imagined in my life. And I’m just little ol’ me.”

Devon is back at Chick-fil-A across from the Shepherd Center for the second time in as many days. It’s a busy lunch hour and the tables are packed, with many of the patrons either in hospital scrubs or a wheelchair. There was a time when he did not like coming here.

They were called push outings. The staff at the Shepherd Center would organize a group of people to go out and experience the world from their new setting. Early in his recovery process, Devon was in a motorized wheelchair and needed help to feed himself. His pride stung when he unveiled this helpless version of himself in public. Devon was depressed and preferred to stay locked in his room.

Tish called the outings a “reality check.” It took time for Devon to come to terms with his new reality and accept it.

But now? He’s a rock star.

The charisma and enthusiasm that he has shown through the past year are infectious, and people can’t get enough of Devon. Tish now considers herself an expert at cell phone photography, no matter the brand, because Devon can’t go anywhere without being mobbed for pictures.

He’s at Chick-fil-A maybe five minutes before an employee named Marquis sees him, leans over and envelops him in a hug, knocking off his hat in the process.

“How you feeling?” she asks. Devon avoids the temptation to go to his standby joke. He says he’s doing fine.

Marquis spends the next 45 minutes doting on Devon. She loads him up with extra sauce for his chicken. She peppers him with questions about his recovery. She hands him a couple of mints from a pocket in her apron, then a few minutes later a couple of extra mints. She laughs at his jokes. She leaves the table after giving Tish a few small bags of walnuts and giving Devon one more big hug.

Devon reckons he has met Marquis two or three times. This sort of scenario has played out regularly in the past year. Strangers gravitate toward him in ways they didn’t before.

It has Devon thinking about what’s next for him when he gets back on his feet. Medically, it’s a question of if, not when Devon gets back on his feet. But Devon has faith. In his eyes, it’s a matter of time.

His goal? “Getting back on my feet, running and doing cartwheels.”

He inspires himself by listening to motivational speakers. His favorites are Ray Lewis, Eric Thomas and Inky Johnson. They get him hyped like he used to get before taking the football field.

Johnson’s story is familiar to Devon. He was a defensive back at Tennessee who suffered a career-ending injury that left his right arm paralyzed. Now he uses his personal tragedy as a way to motivate others, Devon included, through life’s challenges.

In Johnson, Devon sees a man who refused to let the circumstances of life be a hindrance. He sees someone who gives a testimonial that inspires. Devon wants to be that for other people.

A year ago, an injury on the football field permanently altered the course of so many lives. Through their faith, they’re finding their way through the dark times. Devon now wants to be the agent of change.

What’s next for Devon Gales?

“A beginning of telling the world my story,” he said. “A testimonial of something that was tragic and turned into something beautiful.”

He couldn’t help himself. This is too serious.

“That could be a book,” Devon said, his grin returning. “You get half the cut.”

How is Devon Gales feeling?

He’s still smiling, isn’t he?