Guts and glory

Nothing can stop Devon Berry
from being a competitive athlete

Devon Berry encountered his first obstacle in life before he was even born.

His mother, Tanja Grier Amis, was three months pregnant with twins when a test of her amniotic fluid indicated something might be wrong with one of her babies. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem, but one recommendation was for Amis to abort.

That wasn’t an option for Amis and then-husband John Berry, who already had one child, John Jr.

Then a car wreck sent Amis into premature labor. She was put on bed rest in a Henry County hospital and managed to give her babies 33 more days to gestate. On Dec. 17, 1996, two months shy of full term, Devon was born first. It was a problematic delivery. Destinee was delivered via C-section. Both weighed just 2 pounds.

After weeks on ventilators, Destinee grew stronger, but her brother struggled to thrive. Doctors determined he’d suffered a stroke. As he grew older, he had trouble chewing food and couldn’t stand. Before he was 2, he was hospitalized three times for pneumonia. Meanwhile, Amis gave birth to her fourth child, daughter Jayanna.

Devon gets a hug and a kiss from his mother Tonja Amis with his father John Berry looking on.

Devon gets a hug and a kiss from his mother Tonja Amis with his father John Berry looking on.

“I kept telling my pediatrician, ‘You have to tell me what’s wrong,’” Amis recalled.

Eventually Amis was sent to a specialist who diagnosed Devon, then 3, with cerebral palsy, a neurological, non-progressive brain injury or malformation that affects body movement and muscle coordination.

Amis worried about how she would take care of Devon and whether he could ever live a normal life.

She couldn’t have imagined he would become a star athlete.

Photo: Devon Berry, a Hampton High School football player with cerebral palsy, makes his way on his knees to the next set of drills during practice.

2

9 surgeries, 9 years

As a toddler, Devon couldn’t do the things his twin sister could do. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pull himself to a standing position. His legs were too weak to hold himself up. He was slow to begin speaking. He didn’t reach growth milestones like his siblings did.

When Devon was 4, he began a series of painful orthopedic surgeries to straighten and strengthen his legs. Shortly before he turned 9, he underwent the ninth surgery on his legs. It was this final surgery that Devon, now 19, recalls most clearly.

“I can remember praying with my mom before the surgery,” Devon said. “She was crying and I told her God was coming in the operating room with me and out with me.”

The pain was overwhelming, and it lasted for two weeks while he recovered in the hospital. Once he got home, his legs itched inside his casts and he couldn’t control the urge to scratch. When his mother wasn’t looking, he would use a metal coat hanger pushed under the plaster for relief.

The metal cut his skin, which was rubbed raw. When Amis detected a pungent odor coming from Devon’s legs, she knew something was wrong so she took him to the hospital. When the casts were removed, Amis was shocked at the sight of her son’s legs. The skin was raw, pink and infected. A doctor mentioned the possibility of amputation.

“It was one of the most traumatic moments in my life,” Amis said.

He would miss 10 weeks of school, but Devon’s wounds finally healed.

A year later, he told his mother he was ready to play football.

Devon loses a wrestling match with his sisters Jayanna (left) and Destinee, who team up to tickle him on the floor of the family home in Locust Grove.

Photo: Devon works on a lesson in his economics class last October. At the time, he had a 3.7 grade point average.

3

Play ball

Playing sports was nothing new to Devon. When he was 5, Amis signed him up to play Sunshine League baseball, a league for children with disabilities. When it was his turn at bat, he would approach the batter’s box on his walker and hit the ball from a tee. Sometimes his brother would run the bases for him. Other times, Devon would use his walker and circle the bases at his own speed.

“I can remember hitting a home run with one arm,” Devon said.

The rules were different, but the game was the same. Devon loved it, and he played in the league for five seasons before lobbying his mom to sign him up for football.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Devon said.

Amis was vehemently opposed.

You’re gonna have to stop treating me like I’m crippled, Devon told her.

Once Devon’s doctor and the coaches with the Jackson County recreation department gave their approval, she couldn’t refuse. Now in the sixth grade, he mostly watched from the sidelines until late in the games when he was given the go-ahead to play. Leaving his walker behind, he would crawl onto the field and take his position. He made a tackle at the goal line in his first game; being lower to the ground than his teammates gave him an advantage as a defensive player.

He went on to join the football team at Henderson Middle School in Jackson and later the varsity and junior varsity teams at Jackson County High School, where he started to get more time on the field. When his freshman season ended, Devon decided to give another sport a try: wrestling.

What he lacked in leg strength, Devon made up with his upper body strength. He didn’t have to run or even walk far to wrestle, and as long as he could wear plastic braces on his legs, he was comfortable on the wrestling mat. He qualified for the state wrestling tournament his freshman year.

Devon wasn’t just an outstanding athlete. He excelled in the classroom, too. Both he and Destinee repeated kindergarten because teachers didn’t think they were ready for first grade. But by third grade, Devon was in gifted classes.

4

Homeless but hopeful

Meanwhile, Devon’s home life was anything but stable.

His parents divorced, his big brother John joined the Navy, and Devon and his sisters lived with their mother, who struggled to pay the bills. The family moved often, sometimes staying with relatives or in hotels. They got evicted at least once. Amis remarried, but still the family had trouble staying afloat. She credits her faith in God for keeping her family together.

Moving frequently meant Devon attended three different high schools.

Last November, the family moved into a small, three-bedroom rental home in a cul-de-sac, just a few miles away from Hampton High School, where Devon transferred in the 11th grade. Neither Devon nor his sisters had beds, but he had his own room, where he kept his shoes lined up neatly along one wall and a few articles of clothing in the closet. The rest of his possessions he kept in a large plastic storage container in the floor of his closet — just in case the family had to move again.

Devon was eager to play football his senior year at Hampton. But with a new coach, Devon had to prove again he could play. So he practiced right along with the other players, showing up at 6:45 a.m. for weight training and giving it his all.

“He’s one of the most optimistic kids you’ll ever meet,” said Hampton Coach Chad Ashley. “He’s done everything everyone else has done.”

Devon earned the right to wear jersey No. 62.

He wasn’t a starter, and the Hampton Hornets didn’t win a single game that season. But the player who scrambled on his knees from the sidelines to the line of scrimmage was starting to get attention.

At one of the first games of the season against Sandy Creek, a player on the opposing team couldn’t take his eyes off Devon.

Did you see No. 62 on the Hornets play? Benjamin Rutland asked his mom. He is what ‘No Excuses’ means. I want to shake his hand.

Rutland’s mom snapped a picture of the two players together after the game and posted it on her Facebook page. The post went viral.

That’s when things got crazy. Almost instantly, Devon had hundreds of Facebook friend requests, and media outlets began requesting interviews. Camera crews from local TV stations lined the football field during games, and an ESPN crew followed Devon around for a short documentary that aired in December.

Devon and his sisters graduated together.

5

College bound
Though he loved playing football, it was Devon’s wrestling skills and good grades that got the attention of college coaches, including Steve Costanzo, head wrestling coach for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Costanzo, whose team won back-to-back NCAA Division II championships in 2015 and 2016, invited Devon to visit the school last September. It was the first time in his life Devon left the state, and he felt right at home.

“I don’t think there’s anything this kid can’t do,” said Costanzo. “He’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. Our guys said, ‘Coach, you’ve gotta have that kid.’ He inspires me and all of those he’s around."

Back home, Devon had his toughest season ever on the wrestling mat. He didn’t win a single match. In one match, the opponent’s coach refused to let his wrestler compete against Devon because of his leg braces. Another Hampton wrestler stepped in for Devon, but he refused to let his disappointment keep him down for long.

“I had a lot of people doubting me,” Devon said on ESPN’s “E:60” news magazine show. “I had to fight my way out here."

In November, Devon signed a scholarship to wrestle for St. Cloud.

In May, Devon, Destinee and Jayanna all graduated high school together. It was one of her proudest moments, Amis said.

In late August, Jayanna, who enlisted in the Air Force, was awaiting assignment for basic training. Destinee moved into her freshman dorm at the University of West Georgia. And Devon prepared to fly to Minnesota to start college.

“I’m a little nervous, but I’m thankful because this is what I prayed for,” Devon said on his last day in Georgia.

Amis is proud of all of her children. She knows it will be difficult adjusting to her empty nest. She’s asked her church friends for prayers.

Devon is working on a book about his life and dreams of representing the U.S. in the Paralympics someday. He plans to study mass communications at St. Cloud and hopes to one day work for ESPN.

But his first order of business, he says, is to help his college wrestling team win another national championship.

Devon competes in many sports, including the 800 meter wheelchair race during the county track meet in Tiger Stadium at Stockbridge High School in March.

Behind the story


ABOUT THE STORY

As a long-time high school football fan, I first learned about Devon Berry from a Facebook post featuring a photo of him in his uniform leaning against his walker next to a player from the opposing team. I couldn’t imagine how a young man with cerebral palsy could possibly survive in the rough game of football. When I met Devon, I realized he was tough enough for anything. I followed Devon for a year, writing occasional stories on his accomplishments. But I knew there was a bigger story to tell. I recently talked to Devon after his first day of classes at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, and I could hear in his voice how genuinely excited he is. Devon is a true inspiration and living proof that through hard work, anything is possible.

Alexis Stevens
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER

Alexis Stevens joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2000 as a sports page designer. She has been covering breaking news since 2009. Alexis graduated from Berry College in 1997 with degrees in communications and Spanish.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.