When Dragons coach Gene Cathcart learned that Gales would be speaking at a nearby engagement shortly before the Gales family moved into their new home, he went there to meet Gales for the first time.
“I talked to him away from the media, and there was an instant chemistry,” said Cathcart, who is 33-8 in his three-plus seasons leading the Dragons. “You can’t talk to him and not have him change your soul a little.”
The talk quickly led to Cathcart offering Gales a position on the Dragons' staff, which Gales accepted on the spot.
“Coach was asking if I missed football and I said, ‘Yes,’” Gales said. “I love football and I missed being out there with my brothers. Most of my injuries since I was little came from playing football. I love the contact, and I put so much time and effort into the game and, after a while, that’s all you know.”
As an assistant, Gales helps out where he can, whether it’s X’s and O’s, mentorship or serving as inspiration. During his playing career, Gales, who graduated from Central High in Baton Rouge, La., in 2013, lined up at receiver and defensive back and played special teams, so those are the positions he gravitates toward.
“I get in where I fit in,” he said.
Starks said Gales' coaching has improved him at the safety position.
“He’s helped me with my hands, man coverages, footwork, hips — a lot,” Starks said.
He’s a mentor for the team, serving as both a metaphorical and literal big brother. This season, his younger brother, Dalen Gales, a junior, returned to football for the first time since middle school and is working his way up the Dragons' depth chart as a receiver and defensive back.
“The main reason I decided to return (to playing football) was to make my brother proud and do what he loves,” said Dalen, whose primary sport is basketball. “He inspires me.”
Devon Gales acknowledged he’s harder on his brother than anyone else on the team because he sees his potential.
“I make every effort to see him get better,” he said. “It makes me feel great as a coach and as a brother. He’s starting to play more, and he can be a difference-maker.”
Gales' biggest impact may be the inspiration he provides during practice, when he works out alongside the team. While the players are doing their conditioning drills, Gales — who rehabs up to three times a day — does push-ups, bear crawls and other exercises. Cathcart and the team have noticed him getting stronger, and Starks said it’s only a matter of time before he’s once again on his feet.
“To see him work like that every day is amazing,” Starks said. “He’s strong-minded, he never gives up, he pushes deeper, even when he doesn’t think he can’t go deeper, and he can do anything. I strongly believe he’s going to walk again.”
Added senior running back Kolton Jones: “He’s always smiling, in a good mood and cutting up with us. He’s just a great, sincere guy who pushes me to be my best.”
Tish, Devon and Dalen Gales.
Credit: Courtesy of Tish Gales
Credit: Courtesy of Tish Gales
Although the Dragons benefit greatly from having Gales on staff, Gales' mother, Tish Gales, notes that he is an equal beneficiary from the partnership.
“He’s reliving his days through the boys he’s working with now,” said Tish, who works in the Jefferson City Schools system. “It brings him to a happier point in life because sometimes he realizes he can’t do what he used to do. He has missed the game, and this helps him fill that void.”
Said Devon, “(Coaching) has filled my spirits. In school, I wanted to be a coach anyway, so I’m basically living out my dream right now.”
The Dragons (1-0 in Region 8-4A), whose game last week against East Hall was canceled because of a COVID-19 case in the East Hall program, are scheduled to host Cedar Shoals (1-3, 1-0) in a region game Friday. As they seek their first state title since winning Class 2A in 2012, Cathcart said the Dragons are focused like never before, thanks in large part to Gales.
“He has snapped us all into being in the moment,” Cathcart said. “In football, you have a bad tendency to live for tomorrow, the next game, the playoffs. With his spirit, energy and strength, he makes you live in the moment. In the macho, testosterone-filled football world, here’s the toughest human being I know smiling and encouraging everyone, and you can’t help but to be affected by that.”