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Paralyzed football player shows that Southern University spirit

Devon Gales, injured last September, is moving his legs, rehabbing

On May 17, Devon Gales moved his legs.

On command. Voluntarily.

“I was in shock,” a buoyant Gales told The Undefeated. “I didn’t want to stop.”

Gales, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver for Southern University, was paralyzed on Sept. 26, 2015, in a game against the University of Georgia in Athens.

He was blocking on a kickoff return early in the third quarter. After a seemingly routine collision during that play, Gales fell to the ground, unable to feel his extremities.

Eight months later on that Tuesday in May, his stepmother, Tanisha Deans-Gales, in a moment of spontaneity, urged her son to try to move his legs.

On cue, Gales, lying on a bed, directed his anchored right leg to move in a left-to-right motion, then right to left.

An astonished Deans-Gales quickly grabbed her cellphone.

She asked him to do it again.

He did, as she caught his leg movements on video, then eagerly posted it on Facebook, with this note of joy:

“WON’T HE DO IT!!!!! Please keep the prayers going up! GOD IS NOT THROUGH WITH HIM YET!!!!!! My baby is gonna walk again!!!.”

Tanisha Deans-Gales with her stepson, Devon, at a hospital in Athens, Georgia.

Recapturing that moment, an upbeat Deans-Gales told The Undefeated, “In our minds, that was a milestone.”

That is because she and her family previously thought any future leg movement would be highly improbable, at best.

“He can still move his legs on command,” explained Deans-Gales, who added he cannot rotate them. Deans-Gales is Gales’ stepmom, but she raised him, since age 3, as if he were her biological son.

In a haunting twist of fate, the Southern-Georgia game was the first that Deans-Gales and her husband, Donny, had missed in person. “You can imagine the guilt we had,” she reflected. That game, they were watching their son on television.

Deans-Gales and her son now live in a condominium in Atlanta, receiving financial assistance for housing from a foundation set up by Southern University, with a whole bunch of new friends and supporters who are akin to an adopted family. “Regardless of what color jersey my son had on,” Deans-Gales said, “or the color of skin my son has, it’s heartwarming to know that the bulk of our support has come from the state of Georgia.” She took a leave of absence from her job as a high school special-education teacher. Donny Gales, an employee for UPS and former fullback for Southern in the mid-1990s, and their two other children hold down the fort back home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

After undergoing surgery in Athens in September, Gales was transported to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, a hospital specializing in medical treatment and rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord and brain injuries.

Devon Gales with Ron Courson, far right, the University of Georgia director of sports medicine, and his on-the-field staff.

Dr. Brock Bowman, associate medical director of the Shepherd Center and medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program there, highlighted the importance of body movements on command.

“Anything you can voluntarily move can be strengthened,” Bowman told The Undefeated. “The fact he has voluntary movement in his legs is a positive. We remain cautiously optimistic that he will see more improvement.

“We often see patients with spinal cord injuries have movement not under their control. That’s what we call a reflex spasm. Reflex spasms are not a sign of recovery.”

Gales, 22, had already regained motion in his arms. “And I can move my fingers a little bit,” Gales said on speakerphone. He can stand only with rock-solid support, such as with the aid of a roboticslike apparatus, as part of his physical therapy.

Said Bowman, “You need many more muscle groups and strength to stand and walk. But you have to start somewhere.”

A man of immense faith, Gales expects to one day step out of his wheelchair and walk again. If he does, “I’ll be doing some cartwheels and jumping jacks,” he said.

During the Memorial Day weekend, Gales had reason to celebrate as the five members of his family attended an outdoor jazz festival in Atlanta, enjoying the music from a special tent. When his presence was announced from the stage, “He received a standing ovation from the crowd,” Deans-Gales said.

Gales undergoes his daily therapy rehabilitation as an outpatient at Shepherd, the largest spinal-cord center in the nation, with weekends off. Gales’ positive outlook is only buttressed by his determination.

An elated Dawson Odums, entering his fourth season as Southern head coach, told The Undefeated: “If you know the young man, he has the mindset, ‘I’m still alive, so I can control the things that I can control.’ And he’s always had a great sense of humor through it all.

“In the spirit of the Southern Jaguars program, we always say, ‘FTP’ — Follow the Process; follow the rehabilitation. Nothing is getting him down — he has the spirit.”

And that spirit is palpable worldwide as Gales has received mail and well-wishes from as far away as Tanzania and Thailand.

Said Bowman, “The fact he’s an athlete means he’s used to working through obstacles. Athletes are used to lifting weights and controlling body movement.”

Does he ask himself, “Why me?”

“No,” Gales answered. “I know there is a reason God chose me. I know there is a reason for everything that happens to you.”

No asking, ‘What next?’

On that dreadful day in September, as Gales lay motionless on the turf, the telephone at the Gales’ home rang incessantly. But two calls were crucial: Ron Courson, director of sports medicine at Georgia, called to inform the family that Gales had sustained a serious injury; later, a hospital official informed them that he was thought to have suffered a broken neck.

Anxiety overwhelmed the Gales’ household.

“I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” Deans-Gales recalled. Her husband took a pensive walk outside to gather himself. All the while she’s trying not to panic. She’s telling herself, “Keep it together, keep it together.”

A smiling Devon Gales undergoes physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta

A smiling Devon Gales undergoes physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta

Courtesy of the Gales family

Things to do, things to do: They have to pack for a flight to Georgia. Secure the younger children: Son Dalen, 12, already was at the home of his basketball coach. He also plays football; his mother later considered asking him to stop, but Dalen told her, “If Devon can’t play, I’ll play for him.” Daughter, Teah, 7, would stay with her grandmother.

When they arrived in Atlanta on that rainy, dreary Saturday, the Gales couple was greeted at the airport by Courson and Georgia team chaplain Kevin “Chappy” Hynes. When the four piled into a car, Hynes led them in prayer. Then, the group headed to Athens. Gales’ surgery was scheduled for Sunday morning.

When people of faith implore you to believe in the power of prayer, just remember the Gales family.

University of Georgia family helping the Gales

In February, the University of Georgia and the Triumph Over Tragedy Foundation, based in Mansfield, Georgia, announced plans to build the Gales family a new home because their current residence lacked the proper size dimensions to modify and renovate.

“It will be fully handicap-equipped. Historically, we have gone to existing homes and modified them, so this is the first time we are building from the ground up,” Reggie Jones, co-founder of Tragedy Over Triumph, told The Undefeated.

Jones said his organization negotiated with the University of Georgia to create a T-shirt for Gales to help raise money for the family, with the school agreeing to license the legendary Georgia capital G emblazoned on its team helmets for display on the shirt.

Jones, undaunted by the monumental task that lies ahead, firmly stated: “The majority of the sales from the T-shirt purchases and donations so far have come from Georgia fans. Our goal is to raise a half a million dollars to complete this. We are doing our best to have this house completed by the end of this year.”

Deans-Gales said, assuming progress continues, she and her son plan to return to Baton Rouge by late June or early July.

The family hopes donations or purchases of T-shirts can help them get the injured Gales home.

Said Bowman, “Devon has responded as a beacon of positivity; he encourages other patients. He’s done as good a job as anyone we’ve had here. He’s a good ambassador of encouragement.”

A thankful Gales said, “The people of Georgia have taken me in their arms; I have never seen anything like this in my life. It shows how much people care — people in the community and at the school.”

Gales, a proud Jaguar, has become an honorary Bulldog.

Keep the faith.

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.