Devon Gales is receiving more and more visitors these days, a little shy of two months since he was paralyzed on a kickoff return against Georgia. Here is yet another level scaled in the high-rise of recovery — gradually opening himself up to outsiders about that terrible day he fell limp on the Sanford Stadium grass and about how he has chosen to approach all the trials that have followed.
In his room in Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, its walls covered up in hundreds of get-well cards and jerseys, Gales greets his afternoon guest from his wheelchair.
The reaction to his injury has been a little overwhelming. Stored away are boxes more of cards and correspondence. E-mailed best wishes have come in from as far away as Tanzania. Recently, a daily devotional book from a supporter in Thailand arrived in the mail.
Gales raises his arm and places a braced hand into the outstretched palm of his visitor. A sign that he is regaining some sensation and function in his arms.
As he speaks, he pushes against the wheels of his chair, rocking himself forward and back, as if to assure himself that he can. Another incremental gain: Breaking from a motorized chair.
As Brock Bowman, his doctor at Shepherd says, “You build upon small successes; you celebrate the small successes and build toward the next one.”
This day Gales wore a custom black hoodie, the one with his last name written large across his chest, only the “G” is the familiar Georgia Bulldogs logo. Bitter about the team that injured him? No, Gales has become a fan.
On his feet, the young man who cannot walk wore a new pair of rust-brown-colored boots given him Nov. 9 for his 22nd birthday. “I’m just a country boy,” smiled Gales, who grew up not far from his school, Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.
There’s hope in those boots, an odds-defying message that Gales has chosen to draw out of that new leather and those hard heels. You’re going to hear those boots clack-clack down a hallway one day, he said.
It seems ingrained in Gales’ personality to try to put everyone around him at ease. Whatever pain and fear for the future he may be harboring, he keeps securely hidden behind an attitude that is borderline beatific.
“I’m happy where I’m at now. I’m ready to see how the Lord will have me feel without the (wheel)chair — or with the chair,” he said.
No one in his family can recall Gales ever breaking down sobbing about his misfortune. The margin between the good days and bad ones has been almost unimaginably narrow those around him say.
That ability to remove the awkwardness from the room is such a very large task because the injury he suffered is such a very profound one.
It occurred in the third quarter in a game of many Georgia kickoffs — the Bulldogs beat the smaller-division FCS school 48-6. Ahead of the returner, Gales and Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan zeroed in on one another. In this case, the kicker had almost six inches and 35 pounds on the 5-9, 158-pound receiver/special teamer.
They clashed at the 30-yard line, in front of the Georgia bench, Gales’ lowered head meeting Marshall’s shoulder. As Gales buckled, Morgan flung him aside and stood over him for the merest of moments before it became evident something had gone badly wrong.
Recalling the play nearly two months later, Gales mostly remembers the sensation of trying to lift himself, but his body refusing to obey.
“When I hit him my arms locked,” Gales said. “I wanted to roll over and lift my head. All I could remember is lifting my head trying to get up but I couldn’t get up.”
He recalls the sounds of the Bulldogs chaplain and their director of sports medicine shouting to him: “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And he remembers the sound of something else quite strange, really — that of himself chuckling as he weighed the absurdity of those orders. “I can’t move, I can’t move,” he told them.
The following day in Athens, doctors performed surgery to stabilize the fractures in his neck. And on Monday, — visitors began filtering through to see the family (Gales was in no shape after surgery to receive them). Among those passing through was Morgan.
He was the one player Gales’ stepmother most wanted to see, knowing he would be knotted up about his role in the injury. As the two were introduced, Tish Gales held out her arms to hug him. Morgan fell into the embrace and began to cry.
“It’s OK; It’s OK,” Gales’ stepmom whispered into his ear.
Because of their collision on the field there will be, as Morgan said, “a connection between the two of us.”
“I try not to look at it like it was my fault,” he said this week, as if still trying to convince himself.
There will be ample opportunities for the two to connect, as Gales and his family planned to venture out to the Bulldogs game with Georgia Southern Saturday. And traditionally, Georgia visits the Shepherd Center every other year when its rivalry game with Georgia Tech takes the team to Atlanta. The Nov. 28 game is at Grant Field.
Whenever the two do meet again, Gales has a message for Marshall: “I don’t blame him for anything. It was a tragic accident. I don’t want him to feel bad for anything he thought he might have done.”
What otherwise would have been a little-noted game between the college power looking to fill out a schedule with a non-threatening opponent has transformed into a lasting emotional connection.
As Georgia coach Mark Richt put it, “The intersection of those two universities through a football game has made (Gales) part of our family as well. And he always will be.” The fund established by Southern to help with Gales’ care has been greatly seeded by Georgia donors.
The man Gales now refers to as his “godfather” is a Georgia man, the team’s program coordinator Bryant Gantt. At first, Gantt visited Gales and his family as an obligation, befitting his role as a counselor and advisor. Then something more meaningful took hold. Gantt found himself drawn to the kid who always had some rah-rah messages for him to take back to his team.
The more Gantt visited Gales, the more he wanted to come back. It’s a weekly commute now for him between Athens and Atlanta.
“It seems every time I walked into the room, no matter what was going on, his face would light up,” Gantt said.
“A smile would come over his face. He has a great smile. He’s always saying something funny. And I thought maybe God put me here in his life to be a light for him to help him get over the hump.”
Just the idea of Gales ever playing football was a little bit ridiculous. Born with a defect in which his intestines were not enclosed, the infant Gales went through a series of surgeries to put his insides back inside. The process was so lengthy and complicated that he took his first steps in a hospital.
Subjecting that remolded body to football was a far more difficult decision for his parents that it was for Gales.
“My whole life became football,” he said. “I got many bumps and bruises but I was always outside playing. Football. Football. Football.”
He considered it special that he was able to live the rugged life of a football player despite his beginnings. Hence the tattoo that spreads across the width of his chest, declaring him a “Miracle Child.”
Gales today contemplates adding two more tattoos to his collection. An angel on each side of his torso, the word “confidence” beneath one and “blessed” beneath the other.
How far those angels can lift him is not exactly known. Bowman, his doctor, said there is no statistical reason to believe Gales will be able to walk again. Only a rare few do with Gales’ type of injury. But, as Bowman says, “We use the statistics to guide us and what we do from there is we try to beat them. We hope that he falls into that.”
Meanwhile the rehab grinds on, multiple sessions every day while Gales tries to coax a bit more movement from his arms. At this stage now, if he holds his arm at a certain downward angle, he can get the slightest twitch from his little fingers. He will remain at Shepherd for at least another month before being able to transition to rehab closer to home in Louisiana.
What works without fail now is his voice. And that Gales uses most therapeutically, assuring himself and anyone else in the room that he can pay this toll for having played his violent game.
“Every once in a while I get down but I don’t let it bother me for long. I go through my regular day and start looking to the future,” he said.
And what does that future hold? “I feel like it’s going to be a success. Whatever the Lord has for me in five years or 10 years, I’ll be fine with it because I know I was here for a reason,” Gales said.