Once paralyzed, Chris Norton vows to walk his fiancee down the aisle
Chris Norton suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2010. Closing one of his recent speeches, he stood to help emphasize his message. Aaron Young/The Register
Chris Norton's long lifetime walk began in earnest on Oct. 16, 2010 — seven years ago Monday.
He lay face down on the Luther College football field; his neck broken from a hard hit while covering a kickoff for the Norse.
Doctors gave him a 3 percent chance of ever having feeling or movement below the neck. The long odds terrified the then-18-year-old.
"I was scared," Norton, a rural Altoona native and Bondurant-Farrar graduate, said. "In those early days, I wondered what kind of life I would have."
What he has learned since that fateful day is that his catastrophic injury might be more than simply an obstacle for him to overcome. It might be a catalyst for inspiration as well.
Within a few days of his injury, Norton discovered he could twitch one of his shoulders. After a year, he could stand with assistance.
His sister, Alex Norton McManus, a registered nurse, moved to Decorah to help him recover and shuttle him to therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
After five years, with the assistance of his fiancée, Muscatine native Emily Summers, he walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Luther.
The crowd roared. The video was viewed more than 300 million times.
Norton received more than 10,000 messages from all over the world.
"There were people fighting cancer, depression, anxiety and all kinds of pain who saw that video and said they weren't going to give up," Norton said.
He founded the SCI CAN Foundation, which raises money to buy equipment for hospitals and other rehabilitation centers for the benefit of others with spinal cord injuries. The foundation has raised more than $600,000 since 2012.
Norton became a motivational speaker, traveling the country to talk to corporations, professional conventions, schools, churches and scores of other groups.
He wrote a book with his father, Terry Norton, titled "The Power of Faith When Tragedy Strikes," a memoir of his ongoing recovery and the role of his Christian faith in his ongoing recovery.
Norton and Summers moved first to Plymouth, Michigan, so Norton could work out at Barwis Methods, a special training and recovery facility, then to Port St. Lucie, Florida, to continue his rehab with his longtime trainer.
Summers works in foster care. The couple tended to two children at their Florida apartment this summer.
The kids, a newborn and a 3-year-old, arrived scared and silent. They left smiling, the eldest able to recite the alphabet, count to 15 and know, perhaps for the first time, safety and love.
The young couple was heartbroken to let the children go, but they kept the departure in perspective.
"It's so easy to think about … how hard it is to say goodbye, but then you start shutting your heart down and that doesn't work," Summers said in one of the couple's regular Facebook Live videos updating family, friends and fans on their lives. "You've got to keep your heart open because the kids need love."
And for his next milestone, Norton plans to walk arm-in-arm with Summers down the aisle when the couple marries in Jupiter, Florida, in April.
The distance is seven yards, less than it takes to gain a first down in football, but every foot is a march to the biggest touchdown in his 25 years of life.
If you're thinking this all sounds like a script for an inspirational movie, you're not alone. Fotolanthropy, a non-profit documentary film company, is making a movie about Norton.
The title? "7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story."
The trailer for the film drops Monday as the company kicks off a fund-raising campaign to help pay to finish filming and producing the movie.
The title, of course, refers to the distance of Norton's planned walk down the aisle, slated to be the last scene in the movie.
They've already filmed re-enactments of several key moments for the movie, including Norton's injury and recovery at Mayo, plus hours of interviews.
One scene involved Norton himself suiting up in his Luther uniform one more time and lying face down on the turf as he had nearly seven years before.
"It was a surreal experience," Norton said. "I wasn't sad. I've never blamed football for my injury. Accidents happen."
Norton's mind wandered as the film crew worked, through all the triumphs that followed that tragedy.
He's engaged to a beautiful, energetic woman with a heart filled with love for Norton and the foster children they help.
Norton fights daily for increased mobility while traveling for 50 to 70 speaking events a year. He's an author, chairman of a philanthropic organization, soon-to-be movie star and inspiration to thousands.
Norton's life changed in unforeseen ways that Saturday afternoon seven years ago, and while he would never wish a spinal cord injury into his life, his humble perspective is a lesson for us all.
"I always believed God had a bigger and better plan for me than the one I imagined for myself," Norton said. "I always say what determines your success is not your circumstances, but how you respond to them."
Daniel P. Finney,The Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.