JEFFERSON, Ga. (AP) — Devon Gales wasn’t even supposed to be on the court for that fateful play.
He was a substitute in the squad returning from kick-off, lingering on the other end of the South University bench when one of the coaches shouted: “Hey, Devon, go away !”
To this day, Gales still doesn’t know what happened to the teammate who was supposed to take part in the game.
An injury, most likely. It doesn’t really matter.
Seconds later, Gales’ life changed forever.
“I remember everything,” he says now, and that includes the size of the Georgian players his outclassed side faced that day in late September 2015. “These guys are huge,” he recalls thinking, a receiver tiny trotting on a grill of giants.
After a hearty laugh – and Gales, surprisingly enough, is rarely far from a smile or a laugh these days – he breaks down the play that put him in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury.
But we’ll get to that in a moment.
It turns out that Gales’ journey would still take a few unexpected twists and turns to get to where he is today.
He was basically embraced by the Georgia fan base, who embraced his family and helped raise money and materials to build a large, accessible home in Jefferson, a town in northeast Georgia not far from campus. from school in Athens.
Then, after finally deciding to return to college, Gales was accepted to Georgia ahead of the fall 2021 semester.
Yes, Gales is a bulldog.
It’s been a slow and tedious process, with a hiatus of around six years between courses, but the 29-year-old hopes to graduate in communications in around 18 months. His goal is to become a motivational speaker, to share his story with those who might be in a similar situation and need to know that most things are still possible.
“It’s weird, but at the same time, I love it,” Gales said, unleashing another big smile when asked if he attended the school that was across the line this awful day. “To be able to come from a different team and get so much love and then start going to school at UGA.”
Then, he added, a hint of astonishment in his voice, “I’m going to graduate from UGA.”
Gales points out the tattoos he got shortly before his final game. One is a ‘G’ – for his surname, but it now works well for his new school – while the other is a pack of bulldogs, which he had as pets growing up but also matches exactly where it is now.
“It’s so crazy,” Gales said. “There is a reason for all this.”
There must be, even if it still seems so random.
On that kickoff return, Gales was tasked with blocking the first potential tackler that came his way. No problem there.
Then he was supposed to take out Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan who lingered in the back of the play, just to make sure he wasn’t able to tackle the returner if the Jaguars broke one.
That’s when things went horribly wrong.
Spotting the No.13 in red and black, Gales raced full speed in Morgan’s direction and, just before the high-speed collision, did what the coaches had told him never to do.
Lowered his helmet.
“When I hit it, it all froze on me,” Gales said in a factual account. “I was just laying on top of him. When he dumped me, I was like a piece of paper.
In the aftermath of the play, Morgan faced many assumptions.
“It’s definitely on your mind,” said Morgan, who now works as a financial adviser in Athens. “Just knowing you were part of it. And if I wasn’t in the field that day, maybe things would be different. It was just a crazy, weird game.
The memories are still fresh for Gales. The band Georgia was playing. He stared at the clouds, wondering why his legs weren’t working.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I have to get up. I MUST get up,” he told himself. “My teammates – my roommate, actually – heard me and he was like, ‘Devon, come on. Get up! Get up!’ I’m like, ‘Man, I’m stuck.’ I put on my mask, trying to get up. And nothing was moving. I was able to move my fingers at first, but that gradually went away.
His playing career was over and Gales faced the very real possibility of spending the rest of his young life needing a set of wheels to get around.
These days, he’ll complain in good spirits about navigating the hilly Georgia campus in his chair – “man, these hills are crazy” – but never express a hint of bitterness about this life he surely didn’t envision growing up in Louisiana, a tough kid who loved football and dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father Donny, who also played Southern.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Devon said. “I don’t regret what happened because I changed a lot of people, made people see things differently. It just goes to show that (even though) I went through something so traumatic, I I’m still living with it.
Gales remained involved in football, working as a volunteer coach at Jefferson High School. This is when the urge to get up from your chair can be the strongest.
He still adores the rough play that cost him so much, even joking that he’ll probably die with a soccer ball in his hands even if his legs can’t carry it across the goal line.
“When I’m at high school games and the kids come to the sideline, I’m like, ‘Please come over here,'” he joked. “I want to hit somebody. Or give me the ball. I’m going to roll for the touchdown.
As well as taking classes in Georgia – which also gives him the opportunity to train at the football training facilities – Gales has a part-time job at Jefferson Academy, an elementary school in his adopted home. .
He helps out during lunch hours, works with physical education classes and participates in after-school programs. He adores children and relishes the chance to show that there are no limits to what they can accomplish.
“God has placed me in a place,” Gales said, “where I can be an inspiration to others.”
Initially paralyzed from the chest down, therapy and determination helped Gales regain meaningful movement in his arms and hands.
While his fingers remain folded and he wears special gloves to make it easier to drive a car and get around in a wheelchair, he proudly grabs a cup of pencils from a table in the small school office where he tells his history.
This is just the beginning, he insisted.
“I’m going to get out of the chair,” Gales swore. “It’s something that won’t happen overnight. A great footballer doesn’t become great overnight. It’s basically a process that you have to go through to be where you want to go. Everyone has a dream. Everyone has a future.
Gales struck up a relationship with Morgan, the guy he met over seven years ago, and now considers the former Georgia kicker a friend.
Same for Morgana.
“When things like this happen, it can either pull people apart or bring them together,” Morgan said. “We’re like brothers we didn’t even know we had.”
He knows that Gales’ reaction could have been very different, let alone his parents and siblings.
“They could have resented me, hated me, which would have made it much harder for everyone,” Morgan said. “Fortunately, they are the best people ever.”
It’s a tie neither Morgan nor Gales could have anticipated before the heavily favored Georgia secured a 48-6 victory over the historically black school of Baton Rouge who were in Athens that day primarily to pick up a big paycheck.
Now, however, it all makes sense.
They are both Bulldogs.
“I think God, in the grand scheme of things,” Morgan surmised, “intended Devon to be a Dawg.”