Southern honored the seniors on the men’s and women’s basketball teams after they played their final home games Saturday.
But they shared the spotlight with a football homecoming.
Jaguars wide receiver Devon Gales returned to his hometown and the Southern campus for the first time since being paralyzed in a collision during a game against Georgia 162 days earlier.
Gales and his family were greeted late Saturday morning by a welcoming committee, several student-athletes, the school band and cheerleaders when their flight landed from Atlanta, where he has been rehabbing for more than five months.
The third-year sophomore from Central High was whisked the three miles from Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport to the A.W. Mumford Fieldhouse.
Gales, who has regained strength in his arms and some feeling in his knee and the bottom of his foot, wheeled himself into the team meeting room, where he was met by coach Dawson Odums and his teammates.
“Just seeing him roll in by himself, that’s enough inspiration right there,” tight end Dillon Beard said. “You could see all the happiness on his face. He was just glad to be back inside A.W. Mumford Stadium. We’re just so happy to see him. When he came in you could just see the joy flowing out of him to know that he’s back home with us.”
Gales asked to be introduced to his new teammates, recruits who enrolled in January.
The Jaguars had seen video of Gales on television and via social media, Odums had visited him multiple times and a few teammates from the Atlanta area had visited him during the semester break.
But for most of the players, Saturday was the first time they had seen him in person since he was taken by a stretcher to an ambulance after being injured in Sanford Stadium last Sept. 26.
“You can see a picture; you can see a video of him,” running back Lenard Tillery said, “but just the memories we have before the injury, and I see him now, and it’s the same face he had before. He’s that same funny, joking guy.”
Gales said the first thing he ate after arriving home was “Blue Store chicken” from a popular eatery on the edge of campus.
“I tore it up,” he said.
After the Southern women claimed a share of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship by beating Prairie View and their seniors were recognized, Gales was introduced to the crowd inside the F.G. Clark Activity Center and received a standing ovation.
Mayor-President Kip Holden proclaimed Saturday Devon Gales Day and made him Honorary Mayor of Baton Rouge.
“I never thought of having a day of my own,” Gales said. “It’s crazy.”
Gales was presented with a series of gifts — including an autographed game ball from the Georgia game by his teammates — and the university announced that the rest of his education through graduate school would be paid for. Later, Gales, a therapeutic recreation major, was asked if he had planned on going to graduate school.
“I’m going now,” he replied.
Gales will continue to rehab in Baton Rouge and plans to enroll in school in the fall. Odums said he expects him to be a part of the team.
“He’s a member of this football team as long as I’m the head coach,” Odums said.
Gales said he’s “been ready to come home for a while now.”
“I want to tell everyone thank you for the blessings and the love that they gave me,” he said. “With all the prayers and because of the Lord, I know that I’ll walk again.”
Gales has made progress toward that goal, but when his teammates left Athens without him, he faced a less certain future as he awaited surgery the next day.
“Whenever you see an injury like that,” Tillery said, “and a person goes down immediately and they’re not moving, they’re not worming in pain, I saw it and I was like, ‘Man, no, no, no, no, no.’ ”
“On the bus ride back it was just silent. Everybody on the bus really couldn’t say much. We were just sitting there and looking at each other like, ‘Man, did this really just happen? Is this really possible?’ ”
Linebacker Demetrius Carter was watching the game on television in Baton Rouge. His season had ended nine days earlier when he suffered a torn Achilles against Mississippi Valley State.
“It was the first time I had ever seen Devon get hit and not just get right back up,” said Carter, who, like Gales, was part of a group of Jaguars who worked out together and called themselves “the Goats,” which stands for “Great Opportunity Attained Thoroughly.”
“It means something to be a goat,” Carter said. “You’ve got to really have a heart and have that toughness, that self discipline, be gritty, gritty players.”
When Carter saw Gales down on the field he thought, “maybe he just had the wind knocked out of him.”
But after Carter left the room to grab a drink and came back to see play had not resumed, he knew the injury was serious.
“Some people go through things that are lesser than what he’s going through and it breaks them as human beings,” Carter said.
Gales and Carter spoke regularly during football season to encourage one another, quoting Scripture and telling each other, “I love you, bro,” though Carter said his rehab was “a cakewalk” compared to Gales’.
“To see how far he’s come back,” Carter said, “I know I can’t wait to get back on that field and play for him.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.