Bulldogs Beat

Devon Gales and family give their thanks to Georgia before returning home

JOHN KELLEY/GEORGIADevon Gales, right, visited with Georgia with his parents, Donny and Tanisha, on Thursday.
JOHN KELLEY/GEORGIADevon Gales, right, visited with Georgia with his parents, Donny and Tanisha, on Thursday. John Kelley/Mandatory Credit

ATHENS -- Donny Gales put his hand over his eyes, almost in disbelief before bowing his head. Tanisha Gales' eyes began to well up as she raised her right hand over her mouth.

Devon Gales, just as surprised as his father and step-mother, smiled and stared in astonishment.

The Gales family, making a farewell tour at Georgia on Thursday, just received the news that the non-profit entity Triumph Over Tragedy will raise money to build them a new house to accommodate Devon's needs.

The three-bedroom home the Gales have in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, isn't handicap-accessible and would be hard to make renovations make it handicap-accessible. Reggie and Wesley Jones, Triumph Over Tragedy's founders, wanted to do something to help Devon during the long transition he'll undertake now that he's returning home after five months rehabilitating at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

It's the latest example of goodwill that has been bestowed on the Gales family since Devon's spinal cord injury Sept. 26, 2015. He has received numerous letters from football fans across the country. The Gales family will now hold lifelong relationships with those they met at Georgia -- including director of sports medicine Ron Courson and former head coach Mark Richt.

Devon is set to begin the next phase of his recovery back home in Baton Rouge, the city he grew up in and the location of Southern, the school he attends and played football for. It won't be easy, considering he won't have a nursing staff or doctors to rely on at every hour.

But Devon, who has remained upbeat since the day of his injury, said he's ready to take on the next chapter of his journey.

"It's going to be different," Devon said. "I know I'm going to have find different ways of doing things that I'm used to doing."

There's one thing he'll be doing the moment he gets back to Baton Rouge. Being in Atlanta kept him from his fellow Jaguars, the young men he practiced and played football with. Following Southern's game against Georgia, his team returned home.

Gales stayed behind. He's finally getting the chance to go home and can't wait to see some familiar faces.

"Basically, I just want to go see my teammates," Gales said. "That's the first thing I want to do. I haven't seen them in five months. I just want to let them know I'm OK and I will be fine."

THE PLAY

Almost every one familiar with Georgia and Southern football is aware of what occurred Sept. 26, 2015.

Georgia was up big on the FCS opponent and kicked off on a routine play. Place-kicker Marshall Morgan was among the 11 Georgia special-teamers running down the field to try and make a tackle on the ballcarrier.

Devon was on the kick-return team and set out to block Morgan. The two collided head first with one another. The impact of the hit cracked Devon's C6 vertebrae, which immediately sent him to the turf. He couldn't move, and it was apparent a serious injury had just taken place.

Courson and the Georgia training staff ran to the field to assist Devon as quickly as possible.

Dr. Kim Walpert, a neurosurgeon at Athens Regional Medical Center, was watching the game on television and had a deflating feeling from she had just seen.

"When I saw that play, I knew that call was coming," Walpert said. "I felt my heart sink."

A day after the injury, Walpert performed surgery to replace the vertebrae. Following the procedure, Devon was paralyzed from the waist down and had localized movement in his upper body. Donny said he never, or at least rarely ever, cried in front of his son.

But when something of this magnitude occurs, it became too much to hold his emotion in at times.

"During this time, I didn't know where I was going to go or what I was going to do," Donny said. "When I saw my son laying on the field -- all the years I've seen him play I've never seen him lay on the field and didn't get up. It was hard for me."

The play was reminiscent -- to a much lesser extent -- to something former Georgia defensive end and Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker David Pollack experienced. Pollack, who now works as an ESPN analyst, suffered a neck injury in 2006, the second year of his NFL career.

Pollack didn't suffer any paralysis but was unable to continue his football career. He gave some advice to Devon based on his experience, which is to keep forging ahead with a positive attitude.

"Don't let somebody tell you what you cannot do from here on out," Pollack said. "God can do amazing things. Sit back and work as hard as you can."

THE RECOVERY

During the past five months Devon has made strides during his rehab. Initially, there was little feeling in certain areas of his body. During time, that has changed. He can now move his arms and a good portion of his upper body.

He recently began to experience feeling in his knees and his toes. He even joked that some feeling had returned to places he didn't want to talk about. On Tuesday, Devon kicked a soccer ball during an exercise and could feel pressure from the contact.

Devon admitted the uneasiness he felt internally when he realized the magnitude of the injury. But it didn't take long for him to tell himself and others that he will walk again.

"I didn't think I could do it at first, just knowing I was sitting in a chair for a while," Devon said. "I wouldn't able to get up and go to the bathroom like I used to. But it's a challenge I push through. I've made it better for myself."

Courson and Georgia program coordinator Bryant Gantt visited Devon weekly during his stay at the Shepherd Center. Courson recently told the Georgia athletics board that time will tell when it comes to Devon's recovery, in terms of how the injury will affect the rest of his life.

"C.S. Lewis said one time that hardship prepares ordinary people for extraordinary destinies," Courson said. "Right now at this point there are still some unknowns. The one thing we do know for a fact is he's an extraordinary person and has a great destiny."

The toll of Devon's injury was felt the most by those closest to him. Devon, Donny and Tanisha all said they learned something new about themselves through the recovery process, which included the mental energy to push through such a traumatic experience.

"I've gained so much strength through these five months that I've been here," Tanisha said. "I never thought I was as strong as I was."

LEAVING GEORGIA

Devon made the trip to Athens on Thursday to give those in the program thanks and to bid farewell for the time being. Devon will continue his recovery in Baton Rouge while going back to school at Southern. He's anxious to get back in the classroom and to further his rehab with the help of Southern assistant athletics director for sports medicine Lovie Tabron.

"It's going to be complicated with school work," Devon said. "I'm writing kind of different. I have to use different things to learn from. I have to push to class. That's going to be hard. That's a challenge I'm willing to go for. I know things will be better. It's a challenge I know I have to get ready for."

On Thursday, Devon was awarded as an honorary citizen of Athens by mayor Nancy Denson, who said, "He's not just a Bulldog, he's one of us, as well."

Devon had lunch at the Training Table, which is where student-athletes eat at the campus' Georgia Center for Continuing Education. He ate lunch, which was Cajun-themed due to his Louisiana connection, with running back Nick Chubb, who was wearing a T-shirt with the Gales name written across it and the "G" stylized in the Georgia logo.

Brad Akins of the Akins Ford dealership in Winder gave Gales a specially equipped Dodge Challenger in the light blue shade Southern uses in its color scheme.

The outpouring of support has been huge for Gales and his family. While making appearances at Georgia's football game against Georgia Southern and at Georgia basketball's game against Arkansas, he received loud standing ovations from fans in attendance.

It has given Devon a positive perspective on the world as a result.

"It's not always about hate and dishonor," Devon said. "There are still people who love and care for other people."

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