ATHENS — Devon Gales’ life changed dramatically on Sept. 26, 2015. That was the day the Southern University defensive back suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium. But it wasn’t only Gales’ life that changed that day.
There was Lovie Tabron, Southern University’s director of sports medicine, in her first season on the job; there was Ron Courson, Georgia’s longtime head trainer, a highly-respected national leader in college sports medicine; there was Dr. Kim Walpert, the neurosurgeon who performed the initial surgery; there was Reggie and Wesley Jones, founders of the Triumph over Tragedy Foundation, who came to Athens Regional Medical Center to comfort the family. And, of course, there was Donny and Tanisha Gales, Devon’s parents, whose lives will never be the same.
On Thursday, those people were among dozens of individuals who gathered on the UGA campus on the occasion of Gales being released from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center. Gales was discharged on Wednesday and heads back home to Baton Rouge for the first time in five months this weekend.
Gales wanted to say thanks and the “Bulldog Nation” wanted to say goodbye and good luck.
“The whole Bulldog Nation has just wrapped this whole family with love. It’s just awe-inspiring,” said Wesley Jones, one of nine persons to speak during a news conference at UGA’s Butts-Mehre football complex.
Jones and his brother Reggie inspired a little awe of their own by promising the Gales a new home after they return to Baton Rouge. Wesley Jones is a paraplegic who broke his neck in a tree house accident in 1987 and he and his brother founded the Triumph over Tragedy Foundation in 2011.
They are selling Devon Gales shirts and hoodies — utilizing the Georgia “power G” as the first letter — and soliciting donations on the Triumph over Tragedy website in order to raise funds to build a handicap-accessible home. Reggie Jones, the co-founder of the foundation, said the website crashed Thursday due to the tremendous volume of traffic.
“We had so many hits it crashed the server,” Reggie Jones said Thursday afternoon. “GoDaddy is working as we speak to move it to a larger hosting server.”
It was quite an eventful day indeed for Gales. After Thursday’s media session, Brad Akins of Akins Ford of Winder presented him with a new, specially-equipped Dodge Challenger automobile. In Southern University blue, of course.
In addition to getting a new house and car, Gales got to have lunch with Georgia football star Nick Chubb and numerous other UGA student-athletes as he joined them for daily training table meals at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education. There was also a meet-and-greet with UGA athletic association personnel at the football complex.
But it was at the news conference — moderated by former UGA star and neck-injury survivor David Pollack — where those who have come into contact with Gales got to tell him what kind of influence that he had on them. And vice-versa.
“I was watching the game and when I saw that play I knew that call was coming and I felt my heart sink,” said Walpert, the neurosurgeon who performed the initial surgery. “I walked into the emergency room and I looked down at the face of this beautiful young man … and the tragedy of that injury was immediately apparent. In the world of neurosurgery, our lives are filled with tragedy. But I’ll tell you what Devon and his family and this community have proven, and that’s that tragedy is something that can be life-changing in a beautiful way.”
Said Courson: “C.S. Lewis said once, ‘hardship prepares ordinary people for extraordinary destinies.’ And right now at this point there are still some unknowns in his recovery. But one thing we do know for a fact, he’s an extraordinary person and he has a great destiny. Just know the Bulldog Nation is behind you and you’ll be part of the Bulldog Nation forever.”
But it was Gales himself who everybody came to hear from, and he did not disappoint.
Gales continued to demonstrate the positive outlook and upbeat personality for which he has earned a reputation throughout this ordeal. He smiled unceasingly during the news conference and cracked a few jokes about the everyday-life challenges that now await him.
“I used to worry that I wouldn’t be able to get up to go to the bathroom like I used to,” he said with a grin. “But I’ve pushed through and made the best of it and now I just make jokes about it.”
According to his mother, Gales is able to carry 80 percent of his weight now. But he is still confined to a wheelchair and unable to walk. No one could say if or when he might be able to walk again.
Gales said he felt the kick of a soccer ball on his foot Wednesday and was proud to announce that he’s beginning to get feeling back in places he wasn’t sure he ever would again.
“I’m not going to tell where, but I’ve had a lot of feeling everywhere,” he said to a room full of laughter. “It’s just a blessing to know my feeling is coming back.”
Gales did turn serious for brief moments. He said the thing he’s looking forward to most is getting to see his Southern University teammates.
The entire team came to the hospital on the team bus the day of his injury, but the players were not allowed to visit and had to return to Baton Rouge. A few have come to visit him in Atlanta but not many have been able to get away from school work and football.
“That’s the first thing I want to do,” Gales said. “I haven’t seen them in five months. Once I see them I’ll be fine.”
Then there are the realities of just getting around. He plans to return to classes at Southern but does not know what he might do after that.
“It’s going to be complicated with school work,” he said. “Writing’s kind of different, so I have to use different things to learn from. And I’ll have to push (his wheelchair) to class. Whew, that’s gonna be tough. But it’s a challenge I’m willing to go through. I know I’ll be better for it. I’ve just got to get ready for it.”
Asked how he has changed out of all this, Gales smiled even bigger.
“I feel stronger as a human being and as a person influencing others,” he said.
As evidenced by a room full of would-be strangers Thursday, no truer statement has spoken.