SANDY SPRINGS - Alec Rubin and Jacob Beldick sat among the stunned crowd in Sanford Stadium two years ago this week as Devon Gales lay motionless on the field in front of them.
They were fifth-graders then, both big University of Georgia football fans, watching the game with their parents.
“Oh, my God, I hope he’s OK,” Rubin thought to himself as medical personnel attended to Gales. “When he wasn’t moving, I thought, ‘Wow, who is he? I want to help him. How do we help him?’”
That’s how it came to be that three now 12-year olds from The Epstein School, a Jewish day school that serves the Atlanta area, were hanging out this past Sunday night in Sandy Springs with Gales and his family.
They came together for a dinner set up to help Gales. He played wide receiver for Southern University, a historically black college located in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., until that tragic neck injury on Sept. 26, 2015, that left Gales paralyzed.
About 250 people came to the Mexican restaurant Huey Luey’s for a fundraiser to help build Gales and his family a handicap-accessible house.
Alec, Jacob and their friend Jordan Leff decided to make helping Gales their bar mitzvah project.
“I have a big love of sports and also for Georgia, and I was just really excited I can help someone,” Jacob said.
The boys sent out details to their friends and families, and the word spread on Facebook, Twitter and on the popular message board Dawgvent.
“Hey, with what’s going on in the world right now, it’s great to see … a young kid just want to do something like that,” said former Georgia wide receiver Hason Graham, who was at the dinner with his family. “I think it’s the best thing ever. We talk about everybody needing to get along, be for each other, together. That’s what it should be. ”
Gales didn’t know much about what a bar mitzvah project entailed, but he said he had heard something on TV about the charitable act a boy or girl chooses to complete as part of the milestone.
“He talked to me and told me what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to help me,” Gales said. “I said it was cool. I would take anything, you know?”
Alec filled Gales in on the significance of what having a bar mitzvah (age 13 for boys) or bat mitzvah (12 or 13 for girls) means, of reaching the age when, according to Jewish law, one takes on the religious responsibilities of being an adult.
“I told him what a Jewish man is, what a bar mitzvah is, what all this stuff is,” Alec said. “He understood, and was very grateful and very humbled.”
Gales has been a part of other important moments in lives he’s touched since the injury.
Marshall Morgan invited Gales to his wedding earlier this year.
The Georgia kicker collided with Gales when Gales was rushing down field to block on a kickoff. It changed both of their lives.
They eventually developed a friendship.
“We’re really close,” Gales said. “That’s my brother.”
His father, Donnie, who still lives in Baton Rouge, was in town for the dinner since the Gales were flying the next morning to New York. Devon and Morgan were there as Bleacher Report premiered a video about them.
Tanisha Gales, Devon’s stepmother who raised him, was moved by the bar mitzvah project.
“For him to be able to include Devon … it’s something that we hold dear to our hearts that he was able to include Devon on such a special occasion, and in return help Devon and us out at the same time,” she said.
Alec had met Gales months ago after his parents insisted he get to know Gales.
“When he first mentioned it, he was so passionate,” said his mother, Dr. Mitzi Rubin, a family medicine doctor for WellStar Health.
She said they told him, “This is incredible … but you can’t just do something and not get to know him.”
A ‘more personal’ project for big Bulldog fans
Classmates at Epstein have done bar mitzvah projects to help cancer patients, the Humane Society and, more recently, to help hurricane victims.
“A lot of people do these bar mitzvah projects, but you send off the money, or books, or whatever else, but you don’t know or touch the people you’re actually helping,” said Jeremy Rubin, Alec’s father. “This is more personal. You’ll know where the money is going.”
The Rubins are die-hard Georgia football fans.
“I went to the Independence Bowl two times,” said Jeremy Rubin, who will miss his first game in seven years Saturday at Tennessee because it falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday.
Mitzi Rubin is a 1995 UGA graduate who organized homecoming a year earlier and whose brother, Will Goldman, was a football walk-on under Jim Donnan.
Jeremy Rubin knew Bryant Gantt, the longtime Georgia support staffer, and was able to set up a meeting with Alec and Gales to talk about the bar mitzvah project.
Jeremy Rubin worked 11 years for the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and helped bring Final Fours, the NBA and MLB All-Star games, and the SEC football championship to the city. He had taken former Georgia coach Mark Richt and his wife to one of the Final Fours, and told Richt and Gantt after Gales’ injury then that he wanted to help out by donating money.
Rubin now owns Synergies 21, an event management company that runs amateur volleyball events nationwide. A big volleyball tournament in Atlanta that Rubin ran – the Big South tournament – raised about $4,000 for a house for Gales.
“The fact that Georgia has totally embraced him has always impressed me and made me really proud,” said Arthur Steedman, a Clarke Central graduate who came to the dinner from his home in Dunwoody. “I’m so impressed that a 12-year-old would think to set something up like this and be so selfless. I’ve known Jeremy a little bit through the Dawgvent. I was like, what excuse do we have for not coming here and supporting him?”
Gales stays upbeat with ‘new normal’
Five days a week from 9 to 11 a.m., Devon Gales has therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
While he still doesn’t have movement below the waist, he can sit up by himself now, something he couldn’t do a year ago, Tanisha Gales said. He can transfer in and out of a vehicle, and from the wheelchair to a sofa with minimal assistance on a level area.
He can throw a ball and also walk with the assistance of the “Indigo” machine, which responds to his core area when he stands up.
Still, the two-year anniversary since he fractured his C6 vertebrae was a marker.
“It’s kind of taken a toll on him a little bit because initially, when the injury first happened, when we had the first consultation with the doctors, they told him that if you hadn’t received any movement back within the first two years, then the percentage was a little bit less by that two-year mark of you receiving anything back,” she said. “I think that kind of weighed in on him a little hard because I think he expected to be a little bit further in his recovery by this time than he actually is.”
She said the reality this is the “new normal,” hasn’t set in with him yet.
“It’s not to a point where he is depressed or having certain type of feelings about it. It just encourages him … to work harder because he wants to be that small percentage that will receive more movement even after the two-year (mark),” she said.
Devon, now 23, remains upbeat.
“My balance is getting better,” he said. “I’m a lot stronger than what I used to be. Even pushing uphill … that’s a big success for me. … The two-year mark doesn’t really bother me. I just feel like if I keep working and I keep doing what I’m doing, the sky’s the limit for me.”
More money to be raised
Gantt said another family is working on a “Tailgate for Devon” at their school.
“The brilliant thing about it is it’s not the adults that are coming up with it, it’s the kids telling their parents they want to do this for Devon,” he said. “He’s touched so many lives, it’s great to see kids telling their parents and their parents are contacting me. … It’s tremendous and it just shows the power of God that so many people want to reach out and help this kid. He wasn’t one of our kids. He was just another kid of an opponent, but he’s become one of our family members now.”
Georgia said this week that roughly $105,000 has been raised so far for the $500,000 needed for the fundraising drive to build a house for the Gales family. It’s a project Georgia promoted in February through a text message donation campaign. Since the Gales have relocated to Georgia, the plan now is to build in Gwinnett County, where his younger siblings are in school.
The dinner and silent auction of sports memorabilia Sunday raised close to $6,000 for the house.
“It’s just a blessing in disguise to have so many people following your story and keeping up with me, and just still praying for me,” Devon Gales said. “It’s been two years, and they could have just easily said I’m praying for you and been gone after that, but they’re still on my side and hoping for the best for me.”