ATHENS (Feb. 24, 2016) — It was part press conference, part pep rally.
Nearly five months to the day that Devon Gales, a Southern University walk-on was paralyzed on a kick return against Georgia, he sat with his father and step-mother in the Bulldogs large football meeting room. A diverse group was there to update the world on his condition as well as to testify to the strength of spirit of Gales and his family.
Moderating was former Georgia All-American and current ESPN college analyst David Pollack. He would call to the microphone a neurosurgeon, a mayor, two athletic trainers. But it was Reggie Jones and his wheelchair-bound brother Wesley who would make the deepest impression.
Speaking for Triumph over Tragedy, their modest Mansfield, Ga.-based foundation established to help those who like Wesley had suffered traumatic spinal or brain injuries, the brothers came bearing a surprise announcement.
“We’re going to launch a campaign starting today,” Wesley said. “We’re going to raise money. We’re going to build these guys a brand new home. That’s what they deserve, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Gales were thunderstruck. Devon’s step-mother, Tish, alternated between covering her mouth in disbelief and wiping away tears. His father, Donny, bowed his head, stunned. Devon surveyed it all with a bemused smile.
“All right, stop crying,” Pollack, the tough defensive lineman told himself before introducing the next speaker. An air of generosity and optimism filled the room like incense.
BATON ROUGE, LA. — There is no house on the Gales’ lot in the Montrachet Acres subdivision on the west side of the Mississippi River. Not so much as a concrete slab. Or even a single surveyor’s stake.
Just a very slight rise where a home might go. Which served one afternoon as a grassy stage upon which Donny Gales could stand and point out various landmarks in the neighborhood, as well as those beyond the sheared sugar cane fields bordering the back side of the lot.
Oh, there are still plans. Donny has had blueprints of his dream home for years. Only now they await modification — the doors need to be widened to accommodate a wheelchair, a garage remade into a fully accessible bedroom for his injured son. “One way or another we’re going to start (construction) this year,” Donny said.
The only brick wall to point to at this time is a figurative one. The one into which all the momentum of last February’s emotional press conference crashed. The fund-raising t-shirts that replaced the first letter in the Gales’ family name with the Georgia “G” are yesterday’s fashion. Whether by foot or by wheelchair, the world moved on.
Just this past week, the Gales family and Triumph Over Tragedy cut ties. The charity previously had paid off $22,000 the family owed on that lot it had secured nearly seven years ago. The $25,000 remaining in the fund — far short of the estimated $400,000 to build a fully adaptable home for Devon — will be placed in a trust to be used toward eventual construction costs, said Sara Becker, the Atlanta attorney who began advising the family in December. The aim is to set up an alternative fund-raising drive, although nothing has been established yet. The family continues to draw from another fund set up by Southern University for expenses related to Devon’s continuing rehabilitation at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center.
When the Jones brothers came forward with their offer in February, it represented their largest project ever. “We’re a very small, very young charity (begun a little more than four years ago),” Reggie Jones said. “Primarily we have gone in and rehabbed existing homes, never built one from the ground up.”
Given access to the Georgia logo for the T-shirt sales, they had set their sights high. In the end, they reported raising a total of just more than $77,000 — with nearly $30,000 of that going toward expenses, they said.
As little progress was made toward the ultimate goal there was growing discord between the charity and the family. The Joneses felt that the Gales family was not promoting the Triumph over Tragedy campaign in various media interviews and was failing to funnel all giving to the home-building project. And, while, as Tish said, “To this day I still tell them we definitely appreciate everything that they’ve done,” many in the Gales family became disillusioned as the months passed with no progress and distrustful of the charity’s methods and its ability to deliver on the promise. Thus the clean break.
Devon’s reaction: “I don’t know. It’s been so much. I’m just working on my therapy. I just try to stay out of it. God is watching everything you do. Everything works out for the best.”
As Reggie Jones theorized, “I think the family got so much exposure up front and most people have moved on to other stories. We did not anticipate the fall-off that we got.”
But it’s not like Devon is forgotten exactly.
Still undergoing therapy at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, still a regular visitor to Athens, he hears it routinely. “Every time I go somewhere, it’s, ‘You that guy who got hurt?’ ‘Yeah, that’s me,’” he said.
His story has not budged significantly from the theme of a family confronting a seeming conspiracy of hardships.
Eleven months after that hopeful press conference, not only does Devon Gales have no new home, the one he lived in for the majority of his life was inundated by the widespread Baton Rouge flooding of last August.
“Just playing the cards we’ve been dealt,” Tish Gales said.
The family remains riven by the injury. Devon, Tish and eight-year-old daughter Teah spend the bulk of their time in Atlanta, living in an Atlantic Station apartment while tending to Devon’s therapy. Meanwhile, Donny and the couple’s 12-year-old son Dalen, stay back in Louisiana in the home they are gradually reassembling after the floods (not living in a recognized flood zone, they had no flood insurance). A driver for UPS, Donny has considered transferring to the Atlanta area, but the family’s ties in Baton Rouge are strong.
The bulk of the furniture in their Baton Rouge home was lost to the rising water. One of the most prominent pieces now is the hospital bed in the corner of what was the den, where Devon sleeps during his visits home. Working around the clutter of boxes and clothing, they have completed most of the major structural repairs.
“It has been challenging,” Donny said. “I miss my wife and I miss my kids. We’ve all made sacrifices, but they’re in (Devon’s) best interest. We’re keeping our faith, there is a plan for all of this.”
Consistent have been the themes of perseverance and adaptation apparent almost from that day at Sanford Stadium when Georgia’s Director of Sports Medicine, Ron Courson, asked Gales, “Can you get up, son?” And Gales, lying near the Georgia sideline, answered, “I want to, sir, but I can’t.” Then the stilled player did the oddest thing. He laughed, as if commenting on the absurdity of his plight.
‘One thing after another’
At the Shepherd Center, where Devon does out-patient work to gain independence, they continue to be astounded by the attitude of all involved. “It’s been one thing after another for them,” Becky Washburn, the center’s wellness manager, said. “They continue as a group and he continues to stay positive. They’re one of the most supportive families that we’ve seen.”
Back at Baton Rouge, the sentiment is no different when the subject of Devon is raised. “I don’t need one whole hand to count the times that Devon has broken down,” said Lovie Tabron, the Southern athletic trainer who had been on the job just a week when Devon was felled on Georgia’s field. “Me, I don’t know if I could go one day in Devon’s shoes.”
Despite the breakdown in the drive for a new home, the great majority of human connections formed after the injury have not failed. And they remain in many ways most tightly woven around the Georgia community.
In October the family traveled to Miami to visit former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt and watch his new team, the Hurricanes, play. In December, Devon received the David Jacobs Award (for courage, spirit, character and determination) during the Bulldogs annual football banquet.
And perhaps most remarkably there’s this: Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan delivered the blow that left Devon paralyzed. In March, Devon said, he plans to attend Morgan’s wedding.
“(The Georgia) support is still strong; people still want to help,” said Bryant Gantt, the Bulldogs football program coordinator who practically has become a member of the Gales family. “Several times a week I get people asking about him — How can I help? My answer is to just hold off on your help right now until we figure out which avenue we want to go through.”
As for Devon’s physical progress, the fact that he still is in Shepherd’s Beyond Therapy program indicates he is making gains. For once a patient plateaus, the center recommends other options.
‘Like an athlete’
Working on functional independence, Gales has added upper body movement and strength. “Like an athlete, it was important to him to buckle down and focus, put all he has into it,” said Washburn, the wellness manager.
Losing the use of his legs and much coordinated movement in his arms since fracturing a vertebrae at the base of his neck, Gales reports incremental increases in feeling in his legs.
He said he has begun doing slight leg curls with a small amount of weight. “That made me feel good,” Devon said. “As long as it keeps getting better I’ll be out of this chair in a minute.”
While the odds remain stacked against the prospect of him walking again, Devon remains “200 percent” committed to beating those expectations.
“He has told me, ‘Dad, I’m tired of sitting down. When I get up I don’t want to sit down no more,’” Donny said.
Some projects face even more obstacles than others. Hope and faith are the tools that the Gales family bring to them all.
“It will be the work of the Lord. Devon’s going to be on his feet in 2017, I feel it,” Donny said.
It is a goal an entire family shares: Get back on your feet.