I was a college football player. As a freshman, I was on the kickoff team. I sprinted downfield and saw the opening for a tackle, but I mistimed my jump by a split second. My head collided with the ball carrier’s legs. In an instant, I lost all feeling and movement from my neck down. At first, I thought it was stinger, but it turned out to be a spinal cord injury that left me a quadriplegic. I was told I would never be able to walk again and given just a 3% chance of ever regaining any movement in my arms or legs.
In the hospital, I was scared. What will my life look like? Will I ever be happy again? As a kid raised in church, I kept thinking back to Jeremiah 29:11, that God has plans for me to prosper. And I thought “God, that’s quite a stretch. How can that possibly be with the condition I’m in. I’m paralyzed.” I found myself at a crossroads. I could reject God since I didn’t see how this could possibly come true, or I could rely on Him 100%. I remembered learning that faith is believing in something you cannot see or totally understand. So, I chose to go all in on God. I dove into that hope and fought that fear which was so present.
I was in the hospital for several months. When I got home, I battled through the dark times and started to learn how to live as a quadriplegic. My close friends visited often and helped get me out of the house. In fact, they convinced me they could share the load of helping and caring for me if I came back to college. So I did. They took turns sleeping in the same room with me, and helping me get around the campus. That’s when I came up with the idea of walking at graduation. Even though I was given such a small chance to ever walk, I was determined. I went through nearly six hours of physical therapy each day.
During those very difficult rehab sessions, there were so many times I felt like quitting. The workouts were brutal. And fear would start to creep in: why am I putting so much effort into making so few steps? But I kept feeling a pull on my heart, a calling to God to go for it.
My parents had started a CaringBridge when I first got injured, and the number of followers kept growing. My situation, the pain and struggles I was going through were being used as a source of encouragement and inspiration for others that were challenged. That propelled me to keep going during those brutal workouts. And about a year into my rehab, I met my greatest encourager, Emily. She quickly became the love of my life. I never knew if any woman would love me in my situation. But she did. And she meant everything to me. She was right by my side, motivating me through countless hours of workouts.
My faith and the support of my friends, family and Emily helped me prove the doctors wrong. After four years of grueling therapy, I walked the stage at graduation with Emily right by my side. Then, three years later and endless hours of additional therapy, I walked Emily seven yards down the aisle of our wedding.
I could have let my injury define me. But our lives aren’t shaped by circumstance. They’re shaped by us, our faith and our attitude in the face of adversity. My injury made me appreciate the little things in life. It gave me a totally new perspective. I realized my situation could be much worse, and blessings are all around me. No matter what you go through, no matter how hard times are, you can get through it.
The Bible says to stretch yourself in the name of the Lord. Emily wanted to stretch our capacity and capabilities as a couple. I thought living as a quadriplegic was enough of a stretch! But Emily felt compelled for us to serve those that need help, and children are the most vulnerable of all people. My wife and I are now the parents of six (and counting) adopted children and have fostered more than 18 kids. We have a beautiful family. Every day, I focus on my abilities and not my disabilities. I refuse to allow what I can’t do paralyze me from what I can do. I know I can be a very present, loving dad–their cheerleader, somebody that always encourages them. And to give back, Emily and I have now started The Chris Norton Foundation Wheelchair Camp. We provide a free experience for youth (and their families) with spinal cord and neuromuscular disabilities. We give campers a week of fun activities including horseback riding, canoeing, ziplining, road racing and archery. We show them that they, too, can overcome obstacles.
(To see more of Chris and Emily’s story and for information on their book and movie, please visit: https://chrisnorton.org/book-movie/)