ATLANTA -- Devon Gales was at Athens Regional Medical Center for only a few hours when Earl Hill walked into his room.
Not much time had passed after Gales, a sophomore receiver for Southern, collided heads with Georgia place-kicker Marshall Morgan during a special teams play in Saturday’s game. Gales fell to the turf and couldn’t feel a thing. Stabilized on the field, he was placed on a stretcher and sent to the local hospital.
Hill, Southern’s director of football operations, saw the collision take place. He immediately knew the injury was serious. Yet when Hill walked into that hospital room, Gales smiled and told him everything would be all right.
“Coach,” Gales said to Hill, “I’m going to walk.”
“You’re going to run,” Hill said.
On Wednesday, Gales was transferred from Athens Regional to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. He’ll begin a long and arduous process to rehabilitate the spinal injury he sustained against the Bulldogs. He’ll be a resident of the Shepherd Center for at least eight weeks, with his rehab continuing for a year, if not longer.
Dr. Brock K. Bowman, the associate medical director at the Shepherd Center, said Gales fractured his C6 vertebrae, which is located in the base of the neck. Gales has been able to move his shoulders, biceps and wrists, and his right side is stronger than his left.
Gales hasn’t been able to move his legs, although he has told doctors he senses there’s feeling. Bowman said it’s too early to measure what that means.
“We’re still in the process of assessing that,” Bowman said. “His injury was less than a week ago. A lot of times individuals haven’t gotten to this hospital in two weeks’ time. So we’re catching this very, very early.”
Dr. Kimberly P. Walpert performed Gales’ spinal surgery Sunday at Athens Regional. She replaced the C6 vertebrae in his neck, and “a variety of hardware was used to act as a scaffold while his neck heals,” she said.
The goal for Gales is to one day walk again. But the recovery will start small.
Bowman said Gales will first begin rehabilitation work in a chair. From there, his exercises will progress. The hope is that as more muscles wake up, the Shepherd Center staff can begin strengthening them. But with this being a nerve injury, the recovery cannot be rushed, Bowman said.
Gales’ resolve has been optimistic and upbeat, family spokeswoman Kimberly August said. Gales’ father and stepmother, Donny and Tish Gales, and his mother, Amy Gremillion, are at the Shepherd Center with their son.
“He understands that being courageous requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula,” August said. “Rather, it is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to all of us.”
Georgia director of sports medicine Ron Courson was among the first to respond to Gales on the field after the hit, which happened just a few yards from where Courson was standing on the Bulldogs’ sideline. When Courson kneeled down, Gales told him he couldn’t feel anything. Courson said the on-field medical staff made it a priority to ensure a secondary injury didn’t occur.
Since Gales was hospitalized Saturday, Courson has visited with Gales every day. Courson reached out to the Shepherd Center to see about having Gales admitted. Previously, Georgia sent former baseball players Johnathan Taylor and Chance Veazey to the Shepherd Center after sustaining spinal injuries. Courson said Taylor has been in contact with the Gales family.
Courson was at the Shepherd Center on Thursday afternoon, visiting Gales once again. He already had gifted the family some Georgia sweatshirts, which spawned an idea from Donny and Tish Gales. To incorporate Gales into Georgia’s program, they asked if Courson could make one with the Georgia “G” beginning the spelling of the family name across the front of a shirt. Courson obliged and had the shirt made, with Gales’ No. 33 on each sleeve.
“When you have something like this, we’re all the same,” Courson said. “I told his family he’s a member of the Bulldog nation now.”
Gales, keeping the conversation cheerful, recently told his family he would like a medical redshirt for the season. A walk-on for Southern, Hill said Gales will be placed on scholarship so the remainder of his tuition is covered by the university.
Southern also set up a fund to accept donations to cover the medical expenses insurance won’t cover. Hill said the university has received calls asking to help from across the country.
Gales is aware of what’s ahead and is approaching his recovery as a challenge. When Hill met with Gales after the injury occurred, he said the young man’s positive attitude kept him from crying.
Well, one moment almost got him.
Gales asked Hill to relay a message to his Southern teammates, who were able to make the trip home from Athens to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hill said tears began to form as the words came out of Gales’ mouth.
“Tell my teammates I love them,” Gales told Hill. “I love you too, coach.”