ATLANTA -- When those around northern Georgia aren't hugging Devon Gales or exchanging words of comfort with the most inspirational person you'll ever meet, they are giving him things. So this is unfortunate: A chunk of his gifts vanished during a rush of water. The autographed jerseys from Reggie Wayne and Todd Gurley, along with the Atlanta Falcons helmet signed by most of the players, the T-shirts, the pictures and the slew of get-well cards that smothered every centimeter of his room in Baton Rouge, La.
Gales received so many items during the 11 months since he laid motionless on the field of Sanford Stadium in nearby Athens that his parents made three trips from the Bulldog Nation of the University of Georgia to Bayou Country with a trailer attached to their Chevrolet Suburban. They even rented storage space in Baton Rouge to house the big and the small, but virtually none of that stuff remains. In fact, the majority of things they've ever owned are gone, swept away by the flood in Louisiana this month that damaged 40,000 homes, including the one of the past 16 years for the Gales family.
Even so, Devon remains sunshine in the darkest of storms, and he has experienced many during his 22 years. Let's just say it's appropriate he has "Miracle Child" tattooed in bold strokes across his chest. He needed six months worth of surgeries after he was born with his intestines outside of his body. More recently, he's the Southern University football player who made folks ignore their various biases to adopt him as their unofficial son last September after he was paralyzed while blocking for a kickoff return during a road game at Georgia. He stayed on the ground forever. Then everybody cried, ranging from players and trainers for both teams to Mark Richt, then Georgia's head coach.
Through it all, Devon cracked jokes, trying to ease the pain for those around him, and a legend was born out of tragedy.
"It's like this kid, for some reason, has become the twinkle in everybody's eye, and that's why everybody wants to help him," said Georgia director of player wellness Bryant Gantt, who makes frequent visits from Athens to Atlanta, where the Miracle Child stays in an apartment with his mother, Tanisha, for rehabilitation sessions at the renowned Shepherd Center. "I'm always there for the kid, and I'm trying to give him as much of me as I possibly can, because that could have been me. That could have been somebody else. That could have been a member of my family. This isn't Georgia people wanting to support him. This isn't Southern folks. This isn't LSU. This is God."
Whatever it is, I'm one of Devon's disciples.
With 12-year-old Dalen and 8-year-old Teah hanging on every word from their big brother in their rented home, Devon rolled closer to me in his wheelchair while bursting into his gorgeous smile.
He had great news.
He is close to wiggling a finger or two.
"Right now, I can move my wrists and move my arms, and I also can move my stomach muscles down to my abs," Devon said, with his smile growing. "I just don't have any feelings just yet, and the doctors said it would be a 50-50 chance that I would ever get everything back. It's just that the doctors are always going to tell you their point of view. But when you have faith in God, that's the last man who has the word. My faith says I'll get everything back, and I'm just staying prayed up, and I have my family here to help me do that. They're always trying to get me to go outside to do stuff, and even when I say, 'No, no, no.' I end up doing it, and I always have a good time. Whether it's going to the mall or just heading across the street to see a movie."
That also applies to Devon traveling back to the Georgia campus, where his life changed forever. So did those of others. When he was shown on the video screen earlier this year at a Georgia basketball game, the ovation was as if the Bulldogs had nailed a 3-pointer for victory. So many people rushed to greet him that the line wrapped along the concourse of the arena. The university had to assign security guards to handle his instant fans.
Many remembered months earlier when Devon couldn't move anything below his neck before the quietest crowd of 92,000 in the history of SEC football. I was there at Sanford Stadium, trying to stay composed amongst others speaking in whispers in the typically noisy press box. With a blowout in hand for Georgia against an overmatched opponent, Devon's slight frame of 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds was flattened Between the Hedges after helmet-to-helmet contact with Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan.
The Southern band played softly in the distance, and only those sobbing broke the silence that wouldn't end.
Donny and Tanisha Gales weren't there. Which was strange, because they're always there. During Devon's football career (Pop Warner, middle and high school, Southern), they've missed just two of his games while juggling their schedules as a UPS worker and special education teacher, respectively. There was the game at Mississippi Valley State that featured few spectators since it happened during rain storm, and then there was this one. The sophomore wide receiver told his parents not to bother with the long drive to Athens since he was only slated for special teams duty against Georgia. So they watched the unfolding horror on TV from their living room in Baton Rouge, but they heard the announcers say No. 43 was on the ground.
Devon wore 33.
"My husband kept saying, 'That's Herbert [Edwards, Devon's roommate], Tish, not Devon,' but I knew it was Devon," Tanisha said. "I told him, 'Donny, that's the black ankle brace that I gave him right before he left, because he said he needed something to support his ankle.' I didn't get hysterical until I saw my husband lose it. He went outside, and he was crying, and that's something I had never seen in the 20 years we've been together."
Then the spirit of the Miracle Child spread everywhere in a hurry, even before the end of his four-hour surgery.
Georgia officials hustled to purchase roundtrip flights for the Gales to fly from Baton Rouge to Atlanta, where they were greeted by a driver hired by Georgia officials to bring them to Athens Regional Hospital. They arrived just in time to see Richt leave Devon's room in tears. They also encountered Baton Rouge pals Veda Ferdinand and her brother, Wilber Sr., who drove to Atlanta and then took a charter bus to Athens for the game. When the Ferdinands discovered afterward on the trip back to Atlanta that Devon was the injured Southern player, they hopped off the bus and had a local police officer volunteer to take them to the hospital. They stayed until the parents arrived.
Since the Ferdinands missed their charter bus, that police officer spent the two hours or so driving them back to their car in Atlanta.
"The next morning, when we woke up from the housing they had on the hospital grounds, we opened the door, and people just had bags of things they had just dropped off," Tanisha said. "People gave us soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, razors, lotion. Coach Richt's wife [Katharyn] and [other wives of Georgia coaches] got together and purchased a buffet of food, and they brought it to the hospital. We had so much that we fed other folks in the waiting room. It was just amazing. These were people we didn't even know, wanting to give us things and feeling moved to have a moment of prayer with us."
We're back to that spirit of the Miracle Child. It's the reason Richt still keeps in touch with Devon on a regular basis. It's the reason Tanisha remains Facebook pals with Dana Morgan-Murphy, Marshall's mother, who watched her son fall into Tanisha's arms at the hospital while repeating, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," between sobbing as Tanisha calmed his nerves. It's the reason Gantt reached into his own pocket to fly Devon and family members out of the flooding around Baton Rouge, so Devon could continue his daily work at the Shepherd Center.
It's the reason you may applaud now.