It was September 25, 2015, and Devon Gales was playing in his first ever college football game at Southern University. It was a long shot Southern would win, but Devon and his teammates had no intention of giving up, even though the score was brutal heading into the third quarter.

Marshall Murphy, a player from the University of Georgia, was blocking when Devon ran full-steam into him. It looked like Devon was giving Marshall a bear hug, so Marshall shook him off because the time for a man hug isn’t really when 100,000 fans are watching you play football. But Marshall soon realized it wasn’t a hug.

Devon went down. Hard. And he lay limp on the football field.

In a weird culmination of physics and adrenaline, Devon happened to hit Marshall in a way that put the full impact on Devon’s neck, injuring his spine and paralyzed him from the waist down. It wasn’t even a tackle or targeting. It was just a collision. There was no penalty, no fault. It was a freak accident no one saw coming.

Dana Murphy, Marshall’s mother, was watching from the stands when it happened.

“Immediately we all started praying,” Dana said. “I looked around, and you just saw different people praying. … Even though we didn’t know anything then yet at the time, it was just in our gut that it was serious.”

And it was serious. Dana and Marshall soon learned Devon had suffered a spinal injury, and recovery would take years — assuming recovery was even possible.

While Devon’s football career ended there, the story was far from over.

Dreaming Big

If you live anywhere outside of the deep south, there are some things you might not know about college football. We live it down here, counting down the days between Christmas and the spring scrimmage game and then on to the full season. We have shirts that mix Bible verses and team pride — Ezekiel 20:29, for example — and players run out onto the field with verses written on their arms, equipment, or in Tim Tebow’s case, his eye black. It’s not a religion down here, but the two are certainly connected.

So, Marshall, having grown up in South Florida — an area known for its football players — had big dreams of playing college football for a powerhouse. He made All-State all four years of high school before being heavily recruited by some big names in college football — like Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp. He ultimately chose the University of Georgia because the team had a family feel.

Dana remembers what Marshal told her after meeting with the Georgia coaches: “I think, honestly, I could break both legs, and these guys would still care about me,” he said. “It feels like home.”

The first two years, Marshall’s family drove from their home in Florida to his games in Athens, Georgia. When the opportunity arose for his father to take a job as a children’s pastor in Athens, the couple moved to Georgia to be near their son.

Devon had a similar upbringing. God came first, followed by family and then football.

“Devon is very strong in his faith,” Dana explained. “Two of the things you would know about Devon right off the bat is he loves the Lord, and he is very positive. He is very upbeat.”

Dana said the only person she knows who’s more positive than Devon is Marshall. All that positivity paid off when Devon was left unable to walk, and Marshall was left with overwhelming guilt.

A Freak Accident

The day after the accident, Marshall went to the hospital with some of his Georgia teammates to check on Devon, but he was in surgery. Devon’s mother walked up to Marshall, hugged him, and the two started sobbing. Over and over again she told him, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. You can’t carry this on your shoulders.”

Still, the guilt he felt didn’t fully dissipate.

That November, at another UGA football game, athletic coordinators brought Devon on the field so all the Georgia players could meet him. It was the first time Marshall and Devon met, but it wouldn’t be the last.

“(Devon) said to Marshall, ‘I love you, and I don’t blame you for this,’ ” Dana recalled. “Marshall said at that moment … all the rest of the guilt sort of left. … It was like their relationship began, and it began on a good note when Devon said that to him.”

New Friendships, New Family 

That meeting on the UGA football field was the start of something special. Georgia fans adopted Devon, with then-head-coach Mark Richt saying, “We’re trying to cover him up with as much love as we can, and let him know that we care — let him know that we’re here to help. We’re just gonna continue to pray, and I know the Bulldog nation is behind him as well. There may come a time where there may be some needs. Not exactly sure yet. But (if) it does come to that, I’m going to be calling all Dawgs to get involved and to help out.”

Devon spent most of his time at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation home in Atlanta, during the first part of his recovery, while Marshall finished out his senior year before heading off to NFL tryouts. They kept in touch through texts and phone calls, and when Marshall came back home to get married and settle down, the two became even closer. In fact, Devon was the first person they invited to the wedding, and he sat with the family at the ceremony.

“They’re like our family now,” Dana said. “We don’t see them as much as we’d like to see them, but we’re always in touch.”

When their friendship captured some big-time media attention, the two flew to New York for an interview. Now, a movie producer is interested in their story, so they’re working on a script together.

For both Devon and Marshall, it was more than just a dream of playing college football they had in common. Their faith, so tightly interlaced with their game, made them best friends even after the accident. They’re different races, different personalities, and they played on different sides of the line of scrimmage — and in deep-south football, that last one could have been the biggest barrier to overcome.

“They’ve become like the best of friends … more like brothers,” Dana said.

Brotherhood is commonly talked about in connection with football and other team sports, but usually the brothers are on the same team. What’s so interesting about Devon Gales and Marshall Murphy is their bond was made across team lines, conference lines, scrimmage lines.

Their story is proof faith and friendship are bigger than football, no matter what some diehard fans may say.