For 18-year-old Chris Norton life couldn’t get much better.
He had moved away to college, loved hanging out with his friends and was enjoying his newfound independence as an adult. Chris was also a promising football star (American football, that is). Despite being one of the youngest on his college team, he was competitive and determined. He was living his dream.
Then, in a split second, Chris’ life was changed forever.
The day started like any other. Facing a much-anticipated match against a rival school, Chris had an opportunity to show what he was capable of – and he was focussed on keeping his mind calm.
“[I was] just trying to focus on what I was supposed to be doing. As a freshman, I was the low man on the totem pole for the team, so you really want to showcase what you’re capable of,” he said.
“It was about the third quarter where everything changed for me.
“It was during the kick-off. My job was to tackle whoever caught [the ball]. I saw my opening… but I mistimed my tackle by a split second. Instead of hitting him with my shoulder, my head collided with his legs.”
Immediately, Chris knew something was wrong.
“I’m laying there, face down, motionless,” he said.
“The whistle blows to stop the play, but I can’t get up.
“I felt like someone just flipped the power off to my body and I had no control over it.”
Chris was soon joined by paramedics, who airlifted him to hospital, where he was told he had severely damaged his spinal cord.
“They put me down for surgery and that’s when I asked the doctor ‘will I walk again?’.
“And he said ‘I don’t know’. That’s when I started crying, just pouring out tears,” Chris said
After surgery, Chris immediately began to make progress in his rehabilitation, despite only having a three per cent chance to regain any movement below his neck. He worked extremely hard to ensure he had the best chance of recovery.
“I [didn’t] know what I would get back for recovery, but I did know that it was in my hands. At the end of this… I [didn’t] want to look back and feel regrets, that I didn’t do everything in my power to get back as much movement as possible.”
“I’ve come to realise that happiness is not measured in steps. Happiness has everything to do with your mindset and perspective,” – Chris Norton
Before long, Chris returned to college – a very different man than when he had left – and the new experiences kept coming. In his third year of college, he met his now wife, Emily, who changed his life immediately.
“My life definitely changed after meeting her. She’s a beautiful, spitfire of a woman. And she really was motivated to help me walk across the stage at my college graduation, which was my big goal and dream,” he said.
Walking across the graduation stage was a lofty goal, unreachable even. But Chris and Emily were determined to see it through. They moved across the country, so Chris could train full time. Chris trained for six hours a day, for months – all leading to one moment. Understandably, he was nervous.
“I’m thinking ‘what if my body doesn’t work? What if I can’t take the steps, or I get stuck, or I fall? What if it doesn’t work out?’
“But we get up there, and she stands me up – and the crowd erupts. Then I just locked in on focusing on taking one step at a time,” Chris said.
His walk quickly went viral on social media, causing immediate fame and an inundation of support from around the world.
Chris inspired so many people that he decided to do one more walk – walking Emily down the aisle at their wedding, which is documented in the Netflix movie 7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story.
Chris, now 28, lives in Florida with Emily and their six adopted children. His life is different than he imagined 10 years ago, but Chris said he is happier now than he’s ever been.
“I’ve come to realise that happiness is not measured in steps. Happiness has everything to do with your mindset and perspective.”
Listen to Chris’ story on episode three of ‘Finding Hope with Georgia Free’, in the player above. His journey is also documented in 7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story, on Netflix. Find out more about Chris’ work on his website and Instagram.
Featured image: 7 Yards by Fotolanthropy, Sean Berry Photography