They came out for Devon Gales, to celebrate his return home, to lift him up.
There was a reception at the airport Saturday, his first day home in Baton Rouge since that fateful Saturday in Athens, Georgia, when he was felled by a paralyzing injury on a kickoff return. His Southern teammates came out at A.W. Mumford Stadium, a show of strength to show him that, if numbers count for anything, his recovery will be swift.
They came out at the F.G. Clark Activity Center, where between Southern basketball games he was showered on the court with a hero’s applause. There were video messages from all over, including from the staff at the Shepherd Center (the Atlanta rehab hospital that has been Gales’ home for more than five months) and from Alabama coach Avery Johnson, the former Southern basketball star.
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But as much as they were there to raise Devon Gales’ spirits, he was doing the same for them the whole time.
“Just knowing that they’re OK,” Gales said of his teammates, “and being to lay my eyes on them, I’m fine.”
I’m fine, he says. That has been Gales’ mantra through this entire ordeal. Much less of a blow has been the downfall of lesser people.
“Everyone goes to cheer him up, and he cheers them up when they get here,” said former Georgia coach Mark Richt, now coach at Miami. “I don’t think he wants anyone to feel sorry for him. He understands what God has got in store for his life. Just a sweet-spirited kid. Got a great spirit.”
There were times in the team meeting at the stadium Saturday, shortly after Gales landed at nearby Baton Rouge Metro Airport, when several Southern players said they were nearly moved to tears.
Apparently, Gales would have none of that.
“He cracked a few jokes today,” said Mason Ceasar, like Gales one of the Jaguars’ wide receivers. “He did. The whole time you’re trying to pick him up, he’s trying to pick you up. He’s down and out. But in his mind, he’s down, but not out.”
Southern players presented Gales with the game ball from that Georgia game, a game in which coach Dawson Odums said Gales graded out at 100 percent. Mayor-President Kip Holden declared it Devon Gales Day in Baton Rouge and made him an honorary mayor.
Indeed, it was Devon’s town Saturday. There were billboards and “Gales Strong” T-shirts, and other shirts that read “Faith 33,” a reference to Gales’ number.
It’s his number to decide what to do with next season. Odums said he can continue to wear it when he attends home games this fall. Several Southern players — including linebacker Demetrius Carter, who is recovering from a severe Achilles tendon injury and is petitioning the NCAA for a sixth season — have asked for the honor of wearing No. 33 this fall. Eventually, Odums said, awarding the number will become an honor, a badge of leadership and respect like No. 18 on the LSU football team.
After all the hoopla, Gales retired to the upper concourse of the F.G. Clark Activity Center, taking in most of the Southern-Prairie View men’s basketball game.
It was good, he said, just to do something normal again — not that his new normal didn’t tug at him time and again.
As teammate Anthony Mosley wheeled Gales around the arena, people stopped him for selfies and just to say hello.
“You’re the one who got hurt?” a young boy asked.
“Yep,” Gales replied, extending a still frail but strengthening hand.
Gales’ injury is a tragedy and further begs the question about football and the relentless physical toll it can take on those who play it.
But from terrible happenings can come inspiring things. From the bad can come good. If nothing else, the faith in people to help out someone in need — from the outpouring of affection for Gales here Saturday to the promise of the Triumph Over Tragedy Foundation to build a handicapped-accessible home here for Gales and his family — is a positive worth celebrating.
“It’s just been a blessing to find out what wonderful people are here,” Gales said at a news conference in Georgia last month. “This is just a temporary setback. It’s another blessing. I know I’m going to walk out. I know I’m going to have a testimony that I will have to speak on.”
Gales’ teammates know it, too.
“I know Devon will walk again,” Southern running back Lenard Tillery said. “I believe it. He’s a warrior.”
A fund for Gales has been set up at Southern Teachers & Parents Federal Credit Union, to date raising $6,540. For more information, call (225) 775-8597.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.