ALTOONA, Iowa — An Altoona native who suffered a spinal cord injury while playing college football in 2010 continues to inspire others.
“We`ve discovered our life`s lowest moments can be the source of our greatest gifts,” said Chris Norton.
Norton was a freshman at Luther College when his life changed forever on the football field. “If I could go back and change that play, I wouldn`t change it because I found a life worth living for and a purpose,” he said.
He suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors gave him a three percent chance of moving anything below his neck again. He pushed himself to beat the odds, spending four hours a day doing therapy in the gym. Four years later he walked across the graduation stage with help from his then fiancée Emily.
Three years after that, he walked seven yards down the aisle with her at their wedding. “That moment was just a celebration of us sticking together side-by-side,” Norton said, referring to the moment that was covered by media outlets around the world.
Now side-by-side, the Florida-based couple embark upon parenthood. “On the way here a flight attendant asked, `Are these your sisters?` I`m like no, they`re not my sisters, they`re my kids. They`re like, ‘oh, wow,'” said Chris.
Emily, 26, and Chris, 27, adopted five girls within the last year. Four are sisters ages three to ten and a 20-year-old, who Emily had mentored when she was in high school.
“Whitley called us when she was 17. She had nowhere to go, and she asked if we would be her foster parents. There were no families here in Iowa that would take her because on paper they were too scared. She had been in trouble. Just with all the struggles she went through, she went down a really bad path. So, she called us saying they’re going to put me in juvie, or a group home until I age out when I’m 18. So, we decided we’d become foster parents for her, and we just absolutely loved it. So, we continued in Florida where we live and have fostered 17 kids now up to this point.”
Chris said, “I was really scared at first, especially opening your house up to kids you don`t really know yet, the uncertainty. I think about my limitations being in a wheelchair, but I`m so thankful Emily gave me that push that I needed because it`s been the best thing we`ve ever done, and they`ve been a blessing to us.”
Their biggest goal right now is to focus on their kids. “Really trying to raise them and speak life into them every day and to help them know how special they are,” said Emily.
They also have a goal of inspiring others. Chris is a motivational speaker and has a foundation that recently hosted a free camp for people in wheelchairs. The Chris Norton Foundation has raised about $1 million to help those with spinal cord injuries and neuromuscular disabilities.
The couple also wrote a book together called “The Seven Longest Yards.” It’s about their love story, which helped Chris take those impossible steps and Emily overcome her own challenges. “We just hope people are encouraged to keep going during the dark moments, the moments where you feel like giving up and quitting because we`ve had so many of those moments,” said Chris.
“No matter what you`re going through, there`s always hope and that you can get through it, and that God can take those terrible things that have happened to you and turn it into something great and something beautiful, and something where you can give back, and have more purpose than you thought you ever could,” added Emily.
Chris doesn’t spend as much time in the gym doing therapy as he did before. He said he is busy with his motivational speaking and being a husband and father. “That`s what drives me. I`m completely content being in a wheelchair and where I`m at. I`m hopeful for the future, but I can live the rest of my life exactly where I`m at, and I know that,” he said.
“The Seven Longest Yards” comes out July 9. You can get an autographed copy early. They are hosting two conversations with Chris + Emily Norton in Iowa. Both are free, but you need to reserve a spot in advance.
The first official book signing is Monday in Decorah, which is home of Luther College where Chris was injured. It’s from 7-8:30 at Carrie Lee Elementary Auditorium. You can reserve your seat at www.dragonflybooks.com.
The second is Tuesday, July 2 at 7 p.m. at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. You can guarantee a seat by sending your name, address, and number of requested seats to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A feature documentary about his story called “7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story” is expected to debut in 2020.