It was getting late in the rollicking Rose Bowl, and back at the old family home in Baton Rouge, La., Devon Gales was getting three parts nervous to two parts excitable.
“Just say the drinks were kicking in,” he said, issuing the smile that his served him so well through the toughest of times.
“We need to win this game,” he kept thinking at the time, employing the favorite pronoun of every Bulldogs radio guy since Larry Munson.
To watch running back Sony Michel break loose one last time, winning the game for Georgia in double overtime after a potentially devastating fourth-quarter fumble, was, to put it mildly, satisfying. To Gales, Michel is one of the special ones. Just a few months earlier, Michel, his running mate Nick Chubb and defensive tackle Trent Thompson came to sit a spell with him in Lawrenceville, checking on the never-ending rehab and reminding him that he had not been forgotten.
“I knew Sony was feeling bad after that fumble and he came back and pulled it off,” Gales said, two days after the fact. “That’s what you want to do after you have a bad play, you want to shake it off and keep going. You can always put your faith in those kind of guys.”
Across the wide spectrum of those who call themselves Bulldogs fans at the approach of Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama, none come from a place as extraordinary as Gales.
Two-plus years ago – Sept. 26, 2015 to be exact – while blocking on a kickoff return, Gales collided with Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior from equally small Southern University came to rest near the Georgia sideline, unable to move from the shoulders down. His back was broken and his legs paralyzed.
The bonds that formed between Gales, his family and the Bulldogs from that awful moment onward have never been stronger than now at this high point in Georgia football history.
From the moment of impact has come one of the real lasting relationships. Among the ornaments on the Gales’ Christmas tree this year was the hand-painted one reading “Merry Christmas, Brother.” It was from Morgan – complete with a tiny likeness of the two of them. The former kicker is now an investment advisor in Athens.
When the Gales family attended Morgan’s wedding last spring, they were seen to seats directly behind the parents of the groom, where family would sit.
A few key members of the Bulldogs’ football administration who have been working closely with the Gales family since the day of the injury remain in place. Others, notably 2015’s head coach Mark Richt, have moved on and maintained a more long-distance relationship. The new guy, Kirby Smart, sent messages of encouragement to Gales both on the anniversary date of the injury and on his birthday in November.
When the charity group Walk Again Warriors approached Gales to design a pair of high-fashion shoes as part of a fund-raising effort, he chose colors that reflected his old school – Southern blue insole – and new – Georgia red and black on the outside. (This are no PF Flyers. You don’t wear these to mow the yard. Made of python and Italian leather, these are high-end collector’s items that may cost considerably less than a scalped national championship game ticket but still go for $995, per the website walkagain.org. All profits go toward building a new accessible home for the Gales family.)
As Devon’s mother, Tish Gales, pointed out, “Throughout the whole thing we never once thought about being bitter toward Marshall or anybody else on the team.”
As Devon put it, explaining how he could become so emotionally invested in a team that was party to the most catastrophic event of his life, “It was way more than football. It was the community and the people. Here they give you so much love, they care about you, they care about their people, not just the players. They have taken care of me and my family since this happened. Why not give that love back?”
From the Georgia side, that feeling has been readily requited. Just ask a 1988 Georgia grad and one-time state senator, one-time director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and current airline pilot named Jim Butterworth.
“There are two things that attract you – his heart and his smile,” Butterworth said. “I can’t imagine going through what he’s gone through, but his smile is endless. It’s an admirable quality that folks see.”
As other campaigns to try to build a suitable home for Gales, his parents and his younger brother and sister have started and stalled, Butterworth is attempting to ramp up one anew (website is buildfordevon.com).
For these two years while Devon has gone through therapy at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, he, his mother and now his siblings have rented around metro Atlanta while father Donnie Gales attends to his UPS job back in Louisiana. They hope to build in Gwinnett County - near the Lawrenceville area they’re at now - with Donnie relocating there when construction is done. There is still nearly $400,000 to raise to flesh out the project.
“At one point in the process I decided I had to help with this. It won’t let me go,” Butterworth said.
In some ways, the time since Gales fell on the Sanford Stadium turf has sped by.
Suddenly he’s 24, and wondering what to do with his life. Returning to school – at Georgia – is one option.
He dabbles additionally in design, working now on a shirt built around his current mantra, “Watch Me Work.”
“His new slogan speaks a lot about his mental state because it says just watch me do what I do and I’m going to show you that I’m determined to (walk again),” Tish said.
In other ways, the time drags. The fact that he remains in three-days-a-week rehab at Shepherd this long after the injury indicates that those at the center, “see the potential for what Devon can be and what he can become,” said his mother.
“When he gets there he’s always giving 110 percent. Those are the types of patients that they look forward to working with,” she said. “They know they’re not going to quit. As long as it keeps going the way that he has gone, progress is going to come.”
Through the tedium of his treatment, gains are measured in slow, grinding increments. Gales reports that he has slight movement in his legs from the hip, and has some feeling in the limbs. He simulates walking with the aid of a complex machine, but the odds remain stacked against him.
Much remains unresolved in the post-injury phase of Devon Gales’ life. Chiefly, some sense of stability as the family shuttles between metro Atlanta and Baton Rouge.
When asked what he is looking for in 2018, Gales is direct and to the point:
“Start school. Get a house built, reunite with the whole family.”
Then, after a pause and bit of prompting from his mother, “And walk for 2018. Just be able to move something, stand up.”
It’s not in the league with the other items on that list. But if Georgia wins a national championship in 2018, Gales figures that would be good, too.
Or is that when Georgia wins?
“Bulldogs win 34-27. I can’t tell you how, but they win,” Gales foresaw.