In a big reveal worthy of HGTV, Gales and his family were introduced to their new wheelchair-accessible residence Thursday morning here in the sprawling Traditions of Braselton development 50 miles north of Atlanta.

Gales’ reaction as he and his family drove into the driveway Thursday (none had seen the finished product until this moving-in day) was succinctly profound: “I’m at my new house, where I’ll be living the rest of my life.

“I’m home.”

“I can feel the love in every nail driven, every window sealed, every board put up,” said his mother, Tish Gales.

Their home was a product of many collaborations. Nearly from that day in Athens in 2015 when Gales, playing for Southern University, was injured on a kickoff return, Georgia fans had shown an eagerness to contribute to his recovery. But it wasn’t until late 2017 that their generosity gained any real direction toward building a home for the family. 

Former Georgia linebacker Whit Marshall, now an area builder, donated the land for the home. Jim Butterworth, a former state senator and current Delta pilot, took the lead in coordinating the stalled project. Mike Elrod of Currahee Home Builders supervised the building. More than 90 subcontractors pitched in, contributing all or part of their services.  

At the heart of the effort, Butterworth said, were people who, “didn’t take what seemed to be a dead end as a stopping point, it was just a fork in the road.”

“We raised over $250,000 and in addition to that we’ve had multiple businesses donate their labor, their product,” Butterworth said. “Most everything in this (fully furnished) house has some donation connected to it.”

The big local embrace for the family that has traded in Baton Rouge, La., for North Georgia includes former Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan, who hit Gales on that fateful play. Bonded by a tragic moment, the two have become so close that Gales attended Morgan’s 2017 wedding. Morgan stopped by for Thursday’s festivities, bringing his infant son Maddox, who sported a “I Love Uncle Devon” bib.

“He’s family, he’s my brother,” Gales said of Morgan. “It made me feel good that he came.”

The highlight of the four-bedroom home from Devon’s perspective was the wing devoted to him. His large bedroom, with plenty of room to maneuver his wheelchair, features a display of football jerseys on one wall. His own. His father’s. One from the Bulldogs. Another from the Falcons. And on another wall is a 75-inch TV.

Devon Gales' new bedroom at the family home in Jefferson. Do you sense a theme? (Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com)
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta

At the entrance to his room is an old photo of Devon back in his playing days, leaning against the entrance to a meeting room. “I cried when I saw that,” Butterworth said. “I had never seen him standing.”

One door off the bedroom leads to a bathroom with a large, accessible shower area, with a toilet and sink all within his reach. To the back of the house is a gym, painted in a bright mural of inspirational sayings and team logos and players, equipped with the kind of rehab equipment that Gales before could only access at the Shepherd Center downtown. He continues to try to build strength in the search for new levels of independence.  

These are life-changing designs for a family that has had to improvise and make do for years as it coped with Devon’s injury.

“Everything in Devon’s room is going to make our life easier,” Tish said. “With the roll-in shower we don’t have to pick him up and put him in the tub. I no longer have to physically put him on the toilet. Now everybody has their own space. Before we were cluttered up on top of each other. Now we’re going to be looking for each other in this house.”

“Privacy is the big thing,” Devon said. “I’ll be able to get around more, be more on my own.”

It has been a big year for the Gales family.

After years of separation while tending his UPS job in Baton Rouge, Devon’s father, Donny, worked out his transfer to Atlanta and now is back fully in the mix.

And Devon was invited to coach part-time at nearby Jefferson High School. Showing he holds no bitterness toward the game, Devon accepted. He’ll work with receivers and special teams as well as serving as an assistant in charge of motivation.   

“I think last year, our team went through what you would consider a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries, a lot of things you have to persevere through,” Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said. “When you compare that to him, that puts everything in life in perspective. I don’t think they’re going to gripe about two more sets in the weight room or a few more minutes of practice when you see this guy’s approach to life. He’s going to soften the hearts of our young men and make them, even if this does sound cliché, better people not just better players.”

Of course, the crescendo to an eventful 2019 was Thursday’s unveiling of a new home custom built to the needs forced upon Gales one afternoon at Sanford Stadium.

It was a long, nearly four-year journey to get here. Asked to describe the overdue homecoming, Gales’ mother neatly breaks it down into three stages of emotion:

“The beginning: Troubled.

“The middle: Challenging.

“And now: Blessed.” 

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