Tanisha Gales was on an all-terrain vehicle riding away from the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home she and her husband Donnie Gales own. The four-wheeler trudged through the high-rising water, which had already risen to the top of the vehicle’s tires.
Tanisha, the stepmother of former Southern football player Devon Gales, was back home to celebrate her 41st birthday on Aug. 14. Instead, she and all of her children were forced to pack their belongings and leave before her birthday arrived. They hopped on an airplane and flew back to Atlanta to avoid what’s being called the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy.
Donnie stayed behind and spent the first few nights with his mother when the flood hit. Once the water subsided some, he returned to the house, which they adapted some following Devon’s spinal cord injury, and removed flooring, discarded damaged furniture and cut through four feet of Sheetrock.
Tanisha said most of the house’s walls are gone.
One item that survived the flood was the mattress Donnie and Tanisha slept on. The box springs were destroyed, but Donnie is sleeping on the mattress for now. The next step, which goes for the majority of the Baton Rouge residents affected by the flood, is to wait for FEMA grants to help reimburse their losses.
Since they didn’t live in a flood zone, barely anyone in their community had flood insurance. While there may be some relief from FEMA, a lot of those affected by the flood will be forced to start from scratch.
“I’m just grateful to be alive and grateful to left when we did,” Tanisha said.
The past year
The Gales family, along with friends, gathered together for Tanisha’s 40th birthday at their Baton Rouge home on Aug. 14, 2015.
It’s a day Tanisha thinks back upon since it was one of the last days of prior normalcy.
Devon was being his usual self, smiling and laughing. A little over a month later, on Sept. 26, 2015, an on-field collision involving Devon, a walk-on receiver, and Georgia place-kicker Marshall Morgan would be the first change the Gales family would be forced to endure.
Tanisha remembers sitting at home watching the game, just like she would for any other one. Then the play happened. Devon was blocking after a kickoff and met Morgan head first. Devon fell to the turf and laid motionless on the Sanford Stadium grass.
The severity of the injury was clear from the start. A day after the game, Devon had surgery to repair a broken C6 vertebrae. The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was then admitted to the Shepherd Center to receive inpatient care for his spinal injury.
“It’s been a tough year for us. A lot of changes, a new normal for us,” Tanisha said. “One thing we’re always grateful for is when the injury happened it could have been a lot worse. We’re grateful he’s continuing to progress, and that he has faith and belief that he’s going to walk.”
Months after Devon’s injury, Tanisha suffered a death in the family. Then the flood.
“It’s emotional of course, because it doesn’t seem like a year,” she said. “The time has passed by so fast. But a lot has happened in that one year.”
Devon is almost a month away from the year anniversary of the play. Before, he could do anything he wanted. Now, he has to re-learn certain muscle movements.
The significance of the day remains important.
“It’s been weird. It’s really weird,” Devon said. “It’ll be like this is the day that I was hurt. It’s not going to feel like another day.”
Returning to Atlanta
It seemed like a farewell when Devon, Donnie and Tanisha sat at a news conference on the first floor of the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall building in late February, giving their goodbyes to the program that took them in after such a catastrophic accident had taken place.
Countless people at Georgia, from former head coach Mark Richt to director of player wellness Bryant Gantt to director of sports medicine Ron Courson to running back Nick Chubb have all made themselves available to Devon in his recovery.
Richt still stays in touch with Devon even though he’s now at Miami. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has spoken with Devon and welcomed him into his office when the family was in town for a basketball game.
But when the Gales family bid farewell from Georgia and returned to Baton Rouge, it felt like some time would pass before Devon made a return to the Peach State. Not so, as it only took a month for Devon to return.
He didn’t get the same kind of rigorous therapy in Baton Rouge that he received in Atlanta. After spending March at home, Devon returned to Georgia’s capital in April, rehabbing again at the Shepherd Center.
Tanisha, Devon and his sister Teah moved into a condo in the Atlantic Station neighborhood. While Donnie is still in Baton Rouge, younger brother Dalen has since made the move to Atlanta following the flood.
What’s best for Devon, Tanisha said, is to continue therapy at the Shepherd Center. But family is back in Baton Rouge. On top of that, Southern has offered Devon, a walk-on to the football team, a full scholarship to complete his undergraduate program and to attend graduate school.
“It would benefit him to go back home and do those things there,” Tanisha said. “Of course, if someone here were to offer him a scholarship ...”
Tanisha hasn’t heard from any universities about the possibility of Devon transferring in at this time, and that includes Georgia.
If a local university were to offer Devon a chance to complete his education, it wouldn’t be difficult for Tanisha and Donnie to relocate with jobs. Tanisha, a schoolteacher, said she has been offered two jobs since moving to Atlanta. Donnie works for UPS, which is headquartered in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Devon will continue his every-day rehab at the Shepherd Center. But Tanisha said her son will be enrolled at a university, whether it’s Southern or elsewhere, at the start of the 2017 calendar year.
“He’ll definitely be in somebody’s school in January,” Tanisha said. “I don’t know which one. But he’ll definitely be in school this January.”
An ‘athletic thing’
When Devon steps foot each day in the Shepherd Center gym, he said his mentality is to “get better than what I was yesterday.”
Progress in this type of recovery comes in small victories. But from what Shepherd Center lead exercise specialist Nick Evans said, it’s not uncommon for patients similar to Devon to have a more optimistic outlook in their recovery.
“They work exceptionally hard,” Evans said. “And that absolutely does rub off not only on the family and people surrounding them, but the clinicians who are here. Clinicians want to work with those who are highly motivated. You know in your sessions they’re going to be putting forward 100 percent effort. You ask them to do something and they are committed to doing it.”
Devon said it’s an “athletic thing” when it comes to his rehab. It’s no different than the mindset he had in football, which was to get faster in practice and stronger in the weight room.
That can explain why Devon, strapped into an EasyStand 6000 Glider, asked for more weight to lift during arm exercises.
“I think it’s bringing out another personality,” Devon said.
Since the injury, a lot of time has passed for Devon to reflect upon what happened on Sept. 26, 2015. After all, why, of any football player inside Sanford Stadium that day, was it Devon who sustained such a life-altering injury?
Devon has every reason to wonder “why, me?” when it comes to the collision he and Morgan had together.
“This might sound crazy but I thank him for it,” Devon said. “He brought something to my family that will never be replaced. I think we’ve been close ever since. He came to my going away party. He was talking like we knew each other since we were kids. I really appreciate him for bringing so many people to my life that wouldn’t be.”