What it’s like to take a paralyzing hit on the football field

Doctors told wide receiver Devon Gales he could never walk again
Devon Gales
Photograph by John-Robert Ward II

I played football all my life, from age five through college at Southern University. Last fall, my senior year, I was so excited to be playing against UGA—an SEC team in an SEC stadium. When I walked into Sanford Stadium, I was amazed at how loud the crowd was.

During a kickoff in the third quarter, I was in to block. I picked out my guy, the kicker, lowered my head, and hit his shoulder. Then everything froze. I was on the ground. Someone yelled, “Don’t move!,” but I couldn’t do anything except lift my head. I had no feeling anywhere. The stadium was suddenly silent, and I didn’t know what was going on. I’d never even been hurt before in a game.

I was strapped to a stretcher, and I heard people cheering as I was carted off the field. An ambulance took me to a hospital in Athens, where they told me I had shattered a vertebra in my neck. After four hours of surgery, the doctors said I could spend the rest of my life paralyzed from the neck down.

But I knew I was going to walk again.

They shipped me to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, and I began five months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy. The therapy was grueling, but I approached it like I approached football, working hard, pushing myself every day to attain that goal. I felt that through prayer, the Lord would give me back my body.

After a week I had some feeling return to my chest and shoulders and arms. The doctors were amazed. Today I can feed myself, brush my teeth, pull my shirt on, wipe my face, grip things, use my phone, and even write a little bit. Sensation comes and goes, but doctors say I have a 50-50 chance of getting all of my feeling back. Of walking again.

I think that’s a low estimate. With all the support I’ve had, I know I’ll play football again. It’s been my dream my whole life. —As told to Tony Rehagen

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.