overcoming the odds: q&a with chris norton
If you haven't watched 7 Yards on Netflix, stop what you're doing and go do it now. And if you're like us, you'll feel a wide spectrum of emotions as you watch Chris Norton's journey to recover from a life-altering football injury and what it took to get him to where he is today. We were recently lucky enough to catch up with Chris and here a bit more about him and his story. Here's what he had to say.
For those who aren’t familiar with your story, can you tell them a little bit about yourself?
My life drastically changed on October 16th, 2010. I’m sprinting down the sidelines of the football field covering the kick. I see an opening and crash into the ball carrier at full speed. After the play instead of hopping up and celebrating with my teammates, I laid there motionless from the neck down. As a 18 year old freshman at Luther College I was playing more than the rest of my class. I was known for my hard hitting ability but now I couldn’t even push off the ground to get up. What I didn’t know at the time was that I suffered a severe spinal cord injury and would only be given a 3% chance to ever move again from the neck down. My faith and grit would be tested as I endured the toughest road of my life.
Today I am a foster and adoptive dad to seven kids, motivational keynote speaker, author, founder of the Chris Norton Foundation, and my life story is featured in the documentary film 7 Yards streaming everywhere in places like Netflix.
You went viral when you walked across the stage at graduation and again when you walked down the aisle with your wife at your wedding. First of all, congrats! Such an incredible accomplishment. Tell us a little bit about these milestones. What kind of physical and mental prep went into these moments?
They were incredibly big milestones because initially the only thing I could do after my injury was to nod my head. Eventually I was able to shrug my left shoulder. The progress was painfully slow and agonizing at times but yet I was still seeing bits of progress so I kept going. I understood that my future would take care of itself if I took care of today. Over the next few years I began to get more movement in my arms and legs. I would train 4-6 hours a day. I relocated from Iowa to Michigan to train for six months just to be ready for my 4 yard graduation walk. Then moved to Florida to train for my 7 yard wedding walk.
What made these walks even more special was that my soulmate, Emily, helped me each time to walk the steps. You can’t do life alone.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do through your foundation, the Chris Norton Foundation?
I started the foundation in 2012 while I was in college. Because I was injured in a NCAA sporting event their at risk insurance policy has covered my medical expenses and rehab. However, everyone else who has spinal cord injury or any other kind of neurological challenges don’t have the same opportunities as I have because their insurance won’t cover it. I saw many people in similar situations as mine with the same motivation to recover and be healthy but couldn’t because they didn’t have the resources. With this in mind we started the foundation to create more recovery opportunities for people who can’t afford it or didn’t have access to adequate therapy options. In addition, we added the Chris Norton Wheelchair Camp in 2019.
You started an amazing camp called the Chris Norton Wheelchair Camp where youth with physical challenges of all levels can gather with their families and have an adventure-filled weekend. This camp is a lot different from many accessible camps out there. Can you tell us a little more about how you got started and what inspired the family aspect?
An important aspect of the camp is that it’s completely free for the campers and their families. It’s really expensive in a financial burden being in a wheelchair or any kind of physical challenge so we wanted it to be cost free. We are able to do that through donations and sponsors. We wanted families included so that they can create lifelong memories together. Most camps either don’t have any accessibility or only offer something just for somebody in a wheelchair. Therefore, families aren’t doing activities and adventures together. Our camp combines the accessibility with the family so that everyone is together having fun. No one has to sit out on the sidelines which often happens on vacations if you are in a wheelchair. We zip line, horseback ride, laser tag, numerous sports and so many other activities.
Overcoming a life-altering injury like the one you sustained is no small feat. How was your mental health impacted and how did your mental health play a role in your recovery?
I was certainly lost and sad at times. Thankfully I had my faith, support from family, friends, and community, and I also knew it was my responsibility for my success and happiness. Over time I began to understand that the most valuable thing about you is how you love and serve others. I used to value my athleticism above everything else and I thought that’s what other people valued about me as well, but I was wrong. People care more about your character than how fast you can run, jump or swim. Happiness isn’t measured in steps. Happiness has everything to do with your mindset and nothing to do with your physical abilities.
We’re talking a lot about “mental fitness” this month and how working out your mental health each day is as important as what you do to care for your body. How do you stay mentally fit each day?
Every day I have to choose to focus on my abilities and not disabilities. I point out my progress I have made, I look for what’s going right and what I’m getting in life. I choose faith over fear. I put my energy into the things that I can do, not the things I can’t. Life is full of choices. If you focus on the choices you can’t take it will paralyze you from making the choices you can take. Your life will follow the direction of your strongest thoughts.
If there is one message or take away you could leave with the Rhone community, what would it be?
Something my dad told me growing up was- if you don’t like where you are at then do something about it. Essentially he taught me early on the importance of being radically responsible for your life, that means all outcomes- the good and the bad. The more responsibility you accept, the better you’ll respond to adversity. The quickest way to become more adept at being accountable is to practice cutting out blame, the need to complain, and all excuses. These behaviors keep you emotionally stuck and prevent you from doing all that you CAN do. You know you’re practicing radical responsibility when you realize that the only thing you really have control over is how you respond. Be radically responsible for your success and your happiness then you will find the resilience to persevere any challenge.
Favorite item of Rhone clothing?
I just started wearing Rhone clothing and I don’t know how I’m ever supposed to wear anything else! It’s so nice. If I had to pick one thing it would be the Reign Short Sleeve.