By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 29, 2023
ATLANTA—Dressed in his blue graduation robe and linking arms with his older brothers, Devon Corbett made his way across the stage to receive his honorary diploma. Though he was unable to attend school for three years, Corbett was welcomed back with his class at the Marist School commencement ceremony on May 20.
He brought students, parents and faculty to their feet.
It was an end-of-day ski run in Colorado in March 2020. Devon, wearing a helmet, was a relatively inexperienced skier, his family said, when he went off a slope and crashed into a tree at high speed. Compassionate strangers, who later became friends, stayed with him and held his hand. One of Devon’s best friends summoned help down the mountain.
First responders rushed Devon to a local hospital before airlifting him to a critical care center in Denver. Doctors treated his traumatic brain injury, along with numerous medical challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began by the end of the month.
Over the course of three years, Brian and Melinda and their three other children—Connor, 25, Kiernan, 23, and Lauren, 20—have celebrated Devon’s accomplishments, found solace in the kindness of strangers and endured the heartbreak of setbacks. Devon, who earned the nickname “D1” because of expectations his lacrosse skills would earn him a scholarship to a top college team, is honored by family and friends who wear “D1 Strong” wristbands.
A home transformed
In their Buckhead home, Brian, 56, and Melinda, 55, shared a heartfelt conversation that interspersed tears with telling stories of their son’s accomplishments. Joy mixed with sorrow.
To them, their son’s milestones are nothing short of miraculous considering his severe injuries. To help their 18-year-old son, the Corbetts remodeled their home, converted a garage into a gym with equipment to electrically stimulate his muscles and a highly specialized elliptical machine. They arranged for round-the-clock care.
Devon and his parents at one point didn’t come home for more than a year and half. They traveled to Chicago, Dallas and Omaha to seek out the best treatment to retrain his body.
They know that what they can do for their son is unique because of their financial resources. They both work in investment banking. Faced with the alternative, Devon would have spent his days in a nursing home without the hands-on therapy he receives.
Melinda says prayer works when people ask her what they can do.
“We have really crappy days and weeks, and then we have this beautiful time with him where he’s functioning, and you can sit and enjoy spending time with him. He got to go to a graduation party this weekend,” she said.
Indeed, Devon spent time with his classmates at pool parties and even attended the senior prom, looking dapper in a bow tie. Although he couldn’t be physically present for the traditional senior retreat, his classmates connected with him in a video call. The students created a memory jar to commemorate their time together as a class, and another jar specifically for Devon to serve as a reminder of cherished memories from the past.
He was honored at the recent lacrosse banquet, where the coaches made a special announcement: from now on, Corbett’s jersey number 8 will be reserved, and future Marist players will have to earn the privilege of wearing that number.
Unwavering support from near and far
The Marist community and others have rallied to support the family since the tragedy.
Parents from the school drove through the night to be with the family in Colorado in the aftermath of the ski accident. His bedroom walls are covered with posters of encouragement from fellow athletes, along with lacrosse equipment signed by professional players. Melinda saved stacks of mail from students, former lacrosse opponents and families.
“I really didn’t think that many people liked us or cared,” Melinda said about the “outpouring of love and support.”
The family’s online CaringBridge online journal has received 225,000 visits. Brian has written nearly 400 updates in three years. His Instagram account tracking his recovery has gained about 4,100 followers.
The family was the recipient of the 32nd Annual Sigma Nu Charity Bowl at the University of Mississippi. The fraternity raised almost $200,000 for his care, helping to pay for state-of-the-art fitness equipment. Other supporters have included Families and Community Together, a foundation for people affected by catastrophic injury, and numerous people from their parish and local community.
The power of faith and prayer
The family has worshipped for many years at the Cathedral of Christ the King. The children attended elementary school there and were altar servers. Today, they are visited at home by a eucharistic minister to receive Communion to accommodate Devon’s medical needs. He received the sacrament of confirmation at the cathedral.
Brian and Melinda’s days are filled with continuous prayer from sunrise to sunset
“It’s all consuming, in terms of you feel like you pray constantly. I’ve never had a need to pray constantly,” Brian said. “Literally I don’t know how we do it. It’s so crazy. The days can be so unbelievably long, but three years just flowed by like a blink of an eye. Graduation week is especially hard.”
Devon was part of Brian Freel’s homeroom at Marist. Students build community, discuss school issues and celebrate events such as birthdays during this homeroom. He said it was clear that Devon was a competitive team player, especially turning the informal UNO tournaments into “a source of energy and joy.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, students supported Devon and his family with virtual birthday videos. His class gathered at the football stadium to pray the rosary.
Freel, who has led campus ministry for 10 years, said students faced a harsh reality in learning of Devon’s injuries and the death of another student in 2021.
“God walks with us through it all, even when we ask why?” he wrote in an email. “We also realized the power and necessity of community to lift each other up when we need help, and that everyone needs help sometimes. And the lesson of keeping hope alive even as the struggle continues day after day after day.”
A special commencement
The Marist Class of 2023 gathered on May 20 for the last time. Among them was Devon. Three of the Corbett children graduated from the independent Catholic school.
Lauren Corbett, class of 2020, read a message Devon wrote with his father. About his wishes for the class, he said never take life for granted. “Never be satisfied with the hand you are dealt and never take no for an answer. I’ll never give up, and my next wish is that you won’t either.” Devon encouraged them to stay in touch.
“I love you all, Devon,” she said.
The school awarded Devon an honorary diploma, recognizing how “his strength, his perseverance, his hard work were all on full display,” Principal Kevin Mullally said.
Mullally said the awarding of an honorary diploma is rare at the school, and in recent memory was only given to Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, a longtime educator, when he left the school to serve as a bishop. Melinda said caring for her son is exhausting as her faith carries her. “We are so incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to make new memories with Devon 2.0,” she said.
“He’s already a miracle. For me, keeping the faith means keeping the faith and knowing that God saved him for a very special reason,” said Melinda.
The family has plans. Calling it “Mindy’s Dream,” the Corbetts want to begin the process of building a world-class residential rehabilitation facility. They want to take advantage of the Atlanta airport, the medical expertise in the region and local philanthropic foundations to work hand in hand with political leaders to help others like their son.
“That’s where we’re going. Instead of him becoming a great Division 1 lacrosse player and changing people’s lives that way, he would change more lives this way,” Brian said, holding back his emotions.