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Steps forward

After an accident in 2010 left Chris Norton paralyzed, the former football player set his sights on a new goal

I remember every bit of the injury. I was completely conscious, completely with it, so every single thing that happened, I remember like it was yesterday. It was eight weeks into my freshman year at Luther College. I remember wanting to kick off in the third quarter. I wanted to make a play. It was just a freak accident: When I dove across to make a tackle, the ball carrier’s knee struck my neck, and I just was lying there.

It’s completely scary. I was completely naïve to spinal cord injuries and the nervous system. You expect the doctors and the medical staff to have all the answers, and they don’t. They don’t know what’s going to happen once you recover. Will I be able to get around and do the same things I still love doing? Part of my DNA was to compete and be an athlete, so the idea of having that taken away was also completely frightening to me.

When I was in the hospital, my big goal was: I’m going to walk out of here. I wasn’t able to quite do that, but it was something that always kept me working hard, kept me focused. I tried to set smaller goals to get to where I wanted so I wouldn’t set myself up for failure. Instead of saying, “I want to be able to walk,” it was, “How about I do all of these exercises every single day to get to that moment no matter how long it takes?” That’s kind of how I learned to just make daily goals and exercise goals and goals I can do on my own and always be working toward.

The NCAA’s catastrophic injury insurance policy helped me pay for nursing care and for any other additional help for reaching my goals and improving my overall quality of life. It was huge: It paid for me to have access to equipment. When you have those sort of luxuries and you’re seeing other people with spinal cord injuries who don’t have that kind of access but still have the same mindset that they really want to get better, it motivated me to help other people with their recovery so they could reach their hopes and dreams to have a better overall life.

I was asked to speak at a fundraiser banquet in Decorah, Iowa, by a family in town. Afterward, they asked if I wanted to do a fundraiser to help other people with spinal cord injuries. It kind of clicked in my head: Yeah, there are people who want to help. There are a lot of individuals who aren’t getting the same sort of treatment and access to treatment and therapy as I am. I do want to help them. But there’s a lot more that needs to be done than one fundraiser and one benefit. This is something that needs to be done throughout Iowa and the country. So I thought, instead of one fundraiser, one benefit, let’s start a foundation.

That’s how I started the SCI CAN Foundation. We’ve raised over $375,000 in the last three years and have given out grants to other individuals and organizations. The money has been used to buy equipment that people can use to rehab from neurological disabilities. So far, it has benefited close to 1,000 people. We feel really good about that. And I’ve also started getting involved in motivational speaking. I’ve talked to close to 50,000 people, trying to motivate them, trying to be an inspiration and encourage people to do more with their lives and overcome adversity. It’s touched a lot of people’s lives in the Midwest.

Everyone grows up and matures and has a ton of experiences through college. For me, it was almost like a second life. On the day of graduation, I was nervous – after focusing on those daily goals for four years, I was going to walk across the stage. I had a lot of butterflies in my stomach. I kept telling myself to have fun. I tried to focus on each step. It was like I would be before a game: Focus on what you’ve practiced, what you’ve trained for. This was my game day. My moment.

And when my time came, my fiancée, Emily – whom I’d proposed to only a day before – was there to help me. When I stood, the entire crowd started cheering, which I didn’t expect. And when I got to Luther’s president, Paula Carlson, we stopped to shake hands, and the crowd got really loud. I pumped my fist in the air. Everyone on stage was crying, which surprised me. And afterward, my family was there to greet me when I left the stage. For me, I was just excited that I’d accomplished something that I’d set out to do. To finish college walking across the stage shows how far I’ve come from when I first was injured. Everything looked completely grim. I wasn’t supposed to be doing a lot of things that I’m doing now. It was nice to reach that goal and to share it with everyone.

It’s definitely not close to what I can accomplish, though. After walking across that stage, I’m now just starting a new chapter.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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