The Southern football team returned to practice Tuesday night for the first time since wide receiver Devon Gales suffered a severe spinal injury in a 48-6 loss at Georgia last Saturday.
Gales, who was injured while blocking on a third-quarter kickoff return, has been on his teammates’ minds since Saturday and was so especially as they returned to a football field.
“We know if he’s out there, he’s going to give it all that he’s got,” said running back Malcolm Crockett, a special teams captain. “So with him not being able to be out there with us, we’re going to give it everything that we’ve got and dedicate this season to him.”
While the Jaguars were focused on the next step in their season, plans were being made for the first stage of Gales’ rehabilitation after undergoing surgery Sunday for several fractures in his neck.
Gales is scheduled to be transferred Wednesday or Thursday from Athens Regional, where he has been since he was transported by ambulance from Sanford Stadium on Saturday, to the Shepherd Center in nearby Atlanta, Southern interim athletic director Roman Banks said.
The Shepherd Center has been ranked as one of the Top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the country by U.S. News & World Report. According to the hospital’s website, it specializes “in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other neurological conditions.”
Central High School football coach Sid Edwards said he spoke with Gales on Tuesday morning. Gales, a redshirt sophomore, played at Central; and his mother, Tisha, teaches at the school.
“He sounded really good,” Edwards said. “He’s got the best attitude and is so positive. He’s a special human being. That’s something we’ve always known. Other people are going to see that now.”
Georgia officials have been regular visitors for Gales. Coach Mark Richt has visited multiple times, as has offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, whose wife brought food for the Gales family.
Gales was given Bulldog gear and made an honorary Bulldog. David Bowen, an assistant on the Georgia recruiting staff, is a former Central player (2007), and he has visited Gales each day.
Bowen and Gales were both Power Cats, recipients of a top weight-lifting award, from different eras at Central.
Gales’ teammates said he played bigger than his size — 5-foot-9, 158 pounds — might suggest.
“Your first impression might be that he’s small, but he’s going to give you 100 percent effort, and he’ll hit the biggest guys,” Crockett said. “You want guys like that on your special teams because they’re going to make plays.”
Another Gales visitor was Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan, who collided with Gales on the play on which he was injured. Morgan is listed at 6-3, 194 pounds.
“I think that was really healthy for (Morgan) and the family,” Richt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If he didn’t go, I don’t think they would’ve thought one way or another. But I think it was good for him to go and talk to everybody and understand that it’s football.
“No one’s mad at Marshall, and he didn’t do anything that was out of line in any way, shape or form. It’s just unfortunate.”
Southern cornerback Justin Morgan was one of the deep returners on the play and was running behind Gales when the collision happened.
“Honestly I thought he just had the wind knocked out of him by the way it looked,” Morgan said.
But moments later, it was apparent that something more serious had happened.
“A lot of us were shedding tears on the sideline because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Morgan said.
Morgan has been playing mostly defense of late because of injuries, but he’s primarily a wide receiver. As a senior, he has helped mentor Gales.
“He always called me ‘Big Brother,’” Morgan said. “But you know being around him I usually looked up to him because he’s always happy-go-lucky. Devon is a big role model for us — him being so little but always having the biggest heart on the field.”
Gales is a walk-on who was beginning to find a niche on special teams this season.
“As a former walk-on myself,” running back Lenard Tillery said, “you know when you come out that you have a lot to prove to everybody and to yourself. You just want to go 100 percent on every play. And so when he came out this year and they gave him the opportunity to be on special teams, he’s going to know his assignment and he’s going to go above and beyond what you ask him to do.”
The Jaguars have an open date this week before resuming pursuit of a third consecutive trip to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. A second SWAC title in three years would send them to the inaugural Celebration Bowl.
“We want to go into every game honoring him,” Crockett said. “Hopefully we’re going to get to the Celebration Bowl and he can be there.”