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Step by Step

As Southern University’s Devon Gales recovers from an injury that left him unable to walk, he finds support from an unlikely source

Thanks to the support it showed to Devon Gales and his family after an injury, Georgia’s football program received an NCAA sportsmanship award, which Gales held aloft at halftime of a Feb. 25 basketball game between Georgia and LSU. University of Georgia photo

The last steps Devon Gales took without the aid of an apparatus or caregiver came in full gallop on a soggy fall Saturday in Georgia. On that September 2015 afternoon, the 5-foot-9, 158-pound Southern University wide receiver squared up to the 6-foot-3, 201-pound Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan, preparing to deliver a block that Gales hoped would spring the return man behind him.

At first, Gales wasn’t scared. Just another football injury, he thought. But as his arms flailed beside him and he lay on his back looking up at that gray sky, he realized he couldn’t move his legs. He couldn’t even feel them.

For all he lost that day two years ago when a bone in the base of his neck shattered and damaged his spinal cord, he has gained new friends, and some who now double as extended family. The many staff and players at Georgia who rallied around him have helped keep him pressing forward, day after day, through two years of agonizing rehab sessions, two years spent wrestling with hope and doubt. For all the heartwarming stories about bonds and compassion, though, Gales still must be carried from bed to wheelchair, from wheelchair to bed. And his voice does little to mask the ache of his long struggle, even when he reflects on those he most appreciates.

Two months after his injury, Gales returned to Georgia’s field. He spent time with Marshall Morgan. University of Georgia photo

“They could have sent me on my way and said, ‘I’m praying for you. I hope you have a great recovery,’” Gales says. “But they didn’t. They actually stayed there and have been by my side the whole way.”

Georgia Director of Sports Medicine Ron Courson was the first to reach Gales as he lay on the field, immobile. He and others at Georgia haven’t left his side since. “My son plays football at Georgia, so that’s the way I look at it,” Courson says. “I want to treat everybody’s child just like I would my child.”

Morgan, shaken, went to the hospital to see Gales the night after the game. He was wracked with guilt, Courson says, despite assurances that he had made the correct play. Southern University’s team doctor pulled up the play on an iPad and showed Morgan what had occurred: Gales had lowered his head. Morgan hadn’t taken a cheap shot.

“It’s not your fault,” Gales told Morgan in a hospital room hours before going into surgery.

The connections that started to form on that frantic fall day have deepened. In February, Georgia announced an initiative to raise $500,000 to help the Gales family build a handicapped-accessible home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Gales has spent the two years since the injury living in Atlanta so he can push through grueling exercises at a local rehabilitation center. The NCAA catastrophic injury insurance program has covered rehab expenses that exceed what Gales’ insurance covers. Recently, the family’s home in Baton Rouge was ruined by flooding, adding to their struggles. They have land in Baton Rouge where they plan to build the new home, but Gales says the road to raise enough funds, much like his recovery, will be arduous.

Last year, Gales received Georgia’s David Jacobs Award, given to a player who portrays courage, spirit, character and determination, and one of the football team’s highest honors. Courson still visits frequently. Bryant Gantt, Georgia’s director of player programs, spends time with Gales and his stepmother, Tanisha Deans-Gales, each Wednesday.

His former teammates at Southern University also reach out, as does the man whose shoulder stopped Gales cold. Gales and Morgan trade texts and calls like old teammates. In March, a photo of Gales — flanked by Morgan and his bride at their wedding — exploded on social media. “Tragedy brought us together,” Deans-Gales wrote when she posted the photo. “Love has kept us together.”

Two years ago, Gales told Courson he couldn’t feel anything as he lay on the field at Sanford Stadium. Today, Gales can feel pressure on parts of his legs. Nerves gradually have begun to fire in his chest and stomach. Then, in May, a milestone. After so much strain and sweat for seemingly little gain, a video emerged of him taking steps — arms bracing against a tall walker, a therapist’s hands on his hips. “Im on the way!!” Gales captioned the video.

In it, he takes 12 deliberate steps over 45 seconds, muscles and mind hard at work. He’s done it regularly since that day, every step confined to the rehabilitation center, under a roof, therapists at his side. Like his steps, progress seems to arrive at a snail’s pace. “You’re working so hard,” he says. “You’re waiting on something to happen.”

The thing he yearns most for now? Not to be able to run or tackle or throw a block. His current ambition is modest. He wants to stand outside. He wants to put one foot in front of the other, sun on his shoulders.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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