JEFFERSON, Ga. (AP) — Devon Gales wasn’t even supposed to be on the field for that fateful play.
He was a backup on the kickoff return team, lingering at the other end of the Southern University bench when one of the coaches shouted: “Hey, Devon, get out there!”
To this day, Gales still isn’t sure what happened to the teammate who was supposed to be in on the play.
An injury, most likely. Doesn’t really matter.
A few seconds later, Gales’ life changed forever.
“I remember everything,” he says now, and that includes the size of the Georgia players his overmatched team was facing that late September day in 2015. “These dudes are huge,” he recalls thinking, a diminutive receiver trotting onto a gridiron of giants.
After a hearty cackle — and Gales, amazingly 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 back to that in a moment.
Turns out, Gales’ journey would take a few more unexpected twists and turns to arrive at where he is today.
He was essentially adopted by the Georgia fan base, which embraced his family and helped raise money and material to build a large, accessible home in Jefferson, a northeast Georgia town not far from the school’s Athens campus.
Then, after finally deciding to resume his college studies, Gales was accepted into Georgia ahead of the fall semester in 2021.
Yep, Gales is a Bulldog.
It’s been a slow, tedious process, with a roughly six-year hiatus between classes, but the 29-year-old hopes to graduate in about 18 months with a degree in communications. 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 strange, but at the same time, I love it,” Gales said, unleashing another big grin when asked about attending the school that was on the other side of the line that awful day. “To be able to come from a different team and get so much love, and then to start going to school at U-G-A.”
Then, he added, a tinge of amazement in his voice, “I’m gonna graduate from U-G-A.”
Gales points to the tattoos he got not long before his last game. One is a “G” — for his last name, but it now works well for his new school — while the other depicts a pack of bulldogs, which he had as pets growing up but also fits nicely with where he is now.
“It’s so crazy,” Gales said. “There’s a reason for all this.”
There must be, even though it still seems so random.
During that kickoff return, Gales was assigned to block the first potential tackler who came his way. No problem there.
Then, he was supposed to clear out Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan lingering on the back end of the play, just to make sure he wasn’t in position to tackle the returner if the Jaguars happened to break one.
That’s when things went horribly wrong.
Spotting No. 13 in the red and black, Gales ran 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 him, everything just froze on me,” Gales said in a matter-of-fact recounting. “I was just laying on him. When he threw me off, I was just like a piece of paper.”
In the aftermath of the play, Morgan dealt with plenty of what-ifs.
“It’s definitely in the back of your mind,” said Morgan, who now works as a financial adviser in Athens. “Just knowing that you were a part of it. What if I wasn’t on the field that day, maybe things would be different. It was just a crazy, freak play.”
The memories are still fresh for Gales. The Georgia band was playing. He was staring into the clouds, wondering why his legs wouldn’t work.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve gotta get up. I HAVE to 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, ‘Dude, I’m stuck.’ I’m pulling on my facemask, trying to pull myself up. And nothing was budging. I was able to move my fingers at first, but that gradually went away.”
His playing career was over and Gales was left facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of his still-young life needing a set of wheels to get around.
These days, he’ll gripe good-naturedly about navigating the undulating Georgia campus in his chair — “man, them hills are crazy” — but never expresses a hint of bitterness about this life he surely didn’t envision while growing up in Louisiana, a rough-and-tumble kid who loved football and dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father Donny, who also played at Southern.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Devon said. “I have no regrets of what happened because I’ve changed a lot of people, made people see things differently. It just shows that (even though) I’ve been through something so traumatic, I’m still rolling with it.”
Gales has remained involved with football, working as a volunteer coach at Jefferson High School. That’s when the urge to get up from his chair might be strongest.
He still adores the violent game that took so much from him, even joking that he’ll probably die with a football in his hands even if his legs can’t carry him across the goal line.
“When I’m at the high school games and the kids come toward the sideline, I’m like, ‘Please come this way,’” he quipped. “I want to hit somebody. Or give me the ball. I’ll roll for the touchdown.”
In addition to attending classes at Georgia — which also affords him the opportunity to work out in the football training facilities — Gales has a part-time job at Jefferson Academy, an elementary school in his adopted home.
He helps out during lunchtime, works with the PE classes and assists in the after-school programs. He loves kids, and relishes the chance to show there are no limits on what they can accomplish.
“God has put me in a place,” Gales said, “where I can be an inspiration to others.”
Initially paralyzed from roughly the chest down, therapy and determination has helped Gales regain significant movement in his arms and hands.
While his fingers remain curled, and he wears special gloves to make it easier to drive a car and get around in his wheelchair, he proudly grabs a cup of pencils on a table in the small school office where he’s telling his story.
This is only the beginning, he insisted.
“I’m gonna come out of the chair,” Gales vowed. “It’s something that’s not gonna be overnight. A great football player don’t become great overnight. It’s basically a process you have to go through to be where you want to go. Everybody has a dream. Everybody has a future.”
Gales struck up a relationship with Morgan, the guy he ran into more than seven years ago, and now considers the former Georgia kicker a friend.
Same for Morgan.
“When things like that happen, it can either push people apart or bring them closer,” Morgan said. “We’re like brothers we didn’t even know we had.”
He knows it could’ve been much different reaction from Gales, not to mention his parents and siblings.
“They could’ve held a grudge against me, hated me, which would have made it a lot harder for everybody,” Morgan said. “Luckily, they’re the best people ever.”
It’s a bond that neither Morgan nor Gales could’ve anticipated before heavily favored Georgia romped to a 48-6 victory over the historically Black school in Baton Rouge that was in Athens that day mainly to pick up a hefty paycheck.
Now, though, it makes perfect sense.
They’re both Bulldogs.
“I think God, in the grand scheme of things,” Morgan surmised, “wanted Devon to be a Dawg.”