Paralyzed player closer to new home - with help from a former Bulldogs linebacker

The following article was written by Steve Hummer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. To view the original article, click here.

Building a new home is always fraught with doubts and delays. Building a new home for Devon Gales, the Southern University player paralyzed during a game at Georgia nearly three years ago, has at times seemingly bordered on the hopeless.

But now, more tangible than hope, there is a plot of land in Jackson County, just north of Atlanta, on which a home may finally rise.

As the group taking on the challenge to build a wheelchair-accessible home for Gales and his family struggled for months to find a lot that was both affordable and suitable, there came a breakthrough last week.

Turned out, all it took was a phone call to a former Georgia linebacker.

“I was in my truck, good thing I was parked,” Elrod said. “When I saw it was Whit calling, I pulled over and parked. His first words were, ‘Whatever you need. I’m all in.’

“It was tremendous. It was a blessing.”

Within a few days, Devon’s mother, Tish, was out at the Traditions of Braselton development looking for a place to build. What had been agonizingly slow was now moving at the speed of life. The next day, Devon’s father, Donny, flew in from Baton Rouge (the family has been divided between Louisiana and Atlanta since the accident). They’d pick out a spot together where they might rejoin under one roof.

“I kept asking the same thing: So, it’s donated?” Tish said.

“Y’all are just going to let me choose? I’m like ‘Oh, my God.’”

And the Gales clan came together and said this was it: Lot No. 7, one of the largest, flattest lots on Sanctuary Drive was theirs.

As for Marshall: “I just feel privileged to be able to help some way,” he said.

The impact of this donation could be likened to a defining swing of momentum in a big game. Without a lot, nothing else could follow. Now an architect can go to work (wanted, one planner with experience in wheelchair-accessible design). There are pines to clear. Land to move. And, as they intend within a couple of months, real construction to begin.

“As the old saying goes, the train has left the station. And it’s very exciting,” said Jim Butterworth, who 10 months ago began putting together a coalition of volunteers to jump-start what had been a stalled charity.

“This is the breakthrough I’ve been waiting on,” Tish said.

To understand the excitement and the enormity of one former linebacker’s donation it helps to briefly retrace the long, tough route here.

During an emotional news conference in Athens in February 2016, a charity called Triumph over Tragedy announced its plans to build a new home for Gales. At the time, the family was looking at to stay in their hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

The charity helped pay off a lot the family had there, but afterward, never gained liftoff toward an actual home. The family and the charity cut ties by the start of 2017, and transferred about $25,000 in funds it had raised to a construction trust fund.

The effort was in limbo for months, until Butterworth heard about the lack of progress. A former state senator and current Delta pilot – and Bulldog – from Habersham County, Butterworth declared, “We got to get that thing done.”

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Butterworth, who began coordinating the flailing effort. “There have been times I’ve had to defend it. I’ve had people call me and email me and say, ‘Hey, I gave $1,000 to this and I’ve never seen anything done.’ That was the precarious situation by stepping in two years after the fact.”

“You had to go on faith and say, ‘We’re going to get it done,’” he said. “If for no other reason that it’s the right thing to do and it’s my alma mater that stepped out and said we’re going to do this.”

The fundraising picked up again – Build for Devon (at buildfordevon.com) now has $215,000, Butterworth said. As important, it has collected pledges from many in the construction industry to donate work and material.

The lot remained a sticky issue. As Devon continued his rehab at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, he, his mother and his two siblings moved here to be nearby. They grew to love the Brookwood school district in Gwinnett and hoped to build there. But prices and availability of lots large enough to accommodate an accessible home were a constant roadblock.

All the while, Devon’s father stayed with his UPS job in Baton Rouge, waiting to transfer until the house issue was resolved.

Marshall, of course, had known of Devon’s injury. He watched it play out on TV when Gales was hit by Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan on a kickoff return, and his neck broken.

But until he got the call from Elrod, Whit Marshall had been too focused on building a business and raising four kids to track the story in depth from there. (He had a brief foray into pro ball, including a cup of coffee with the Falcons, but soon enough got around to the real-life experience).

“I didn’t realize how much time had passed. I knew there was nothing going on, but I didn’t know where they stood at all,” Marshall said.

He immediately connected to the story on a number of levels.

As a father: “I can’t imagine a family being separated for this long. It’s unbelievable. The family has the best attitude you can imagine – so optimistic. It’s an amazing story, to see them separated after such a traumatic experience, it has to be devastating.”

As a former football player: “You know the risk. You know something like that could have happen to any of us.”

And as a Bulldog: “There are a lot of Georgia people onboard. Having significant ties to Georgia is a big deal. It’s something everyone can jump on and feel good about it.”

Like Marshall said, having a plot of land to work with demonstrates that a house for Gales and his family is, “not just a dream, it’s something that’s going to happen.”

It has been difficult to reconcile that nearly three years have passed since Devon was paralyzed. He is 24 now. So much time, during which progress on all fronts has been measured in small increments.

“He’s doing good. His spirits are still up,” Tish said of Devon. “Every now and then he’ll have his moments because he keeps looking at the time factor.

“’Momma,’” he’ll say. “‘It’s about to be three years.’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, look at where you were and look at where you are now.’ That’s what I have to constantly remind him of.”

He has gained more movement in his arms, enough control to play catch with a therapist. Enough to transfer himself in and out of his wheelchair with minimal assistance. He continues to try to strengthen his legs, attempting to regain some mobility.

A house accessible to his needs would add another small layer of independence, Tish says.

“He’d be able to function, not totally on his own, but with a little less assistance than he’s getting now,” she said.

When Devon made his first visit to the land where his new house would sit – in less than a year now, says the Build for Devon group – it was a short, sweet first reaction between mother and son, reported Tish.

“Oh, my God, momma.”

“I think this is it, Devon.”

“Yes, I believe it is.”

They got around to asking Whit Marshall – UGA Class of ’96 – if he could do something. It took him about two seconds to answer. Have the Gales family come out to the subdivision that the Marshall family company is building out and pick a lot, he said. Any lot. And Paran Homes would donate it to the cause.

Mike Elrod, the North Georgia builder who has volunteered to manage the Build for Devon project, was stunned by Marshall’s offer.