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Chris Norton was sure it was just a stinger, but it turned out to be a broken vertebrae that left him a quadriplegic.
He was given a three percent chance of ever regaining movement in his arms or legs.
Eight years after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a Division III football game in Iowa, with the aid of his fiancee, Norton walked down the aisle on their wedding day in 2018.
Norton’s life and story are the subject of a new movie 7 Yards, which was released this week on Apple TV and Amazon Prime. It’s a hard watch, but it’s also a worthwhile one.
The film’s producer, Katie Norris, grew up in and lives in Lake Highlands. She has since started the nonprofit Fotolanthropy, which tells inspiring stories of people who have overcome traumatic events and managed to rebuild their lives.
She met the director of this movie, Jonathon Link, when the duo happened to be filming the wedding of former TCU and current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton. Norris was the photographer, and Link was the videographer. 7 Yards was not their only collaboration.
In 2012, Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills lost parts of all four limbs after an IED was detonated while he was serving his third tour in Afghanistan. Norris spoke to Mills about his experience, and three years after his injury, they released their one-hour documentary,Travis: A Soldier’s Story.
Norris learned of Norton when she saw the video of his graduation from Luther College in 2015, when he got out of his wheelchair to walk three yards to accept his diploma. The video had gone viral, and that led to the eventual meeting between Norris and Norton.
Chris Norton and football today
Norton sustained his injury as a freshman playing for Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The date was Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010.
That same day, Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand sustained a spinal cord injury in a game against Army in New Jersey.
Both injuries occurred when the two players were on special teams, just trying to make a routine play.
“The same day,” Norton said. “Can you believe that?”
You probably are more familiar with LeGrand’s story; he played for a state school, a Power 5 team near New York City, and in 2012 he received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at The ESPYs.
Norton’s story was more obscure. He played on the Division III level, for a school with an enrollment of 2,300 in a town of 7,500.
Norris’ vision for the movie was to re-enact everything about the play that changed Norton’s life. She tries to do the same for all of her movies.
“We want the viewer to understand where the person is coming from,” Norris said in a recent phone interview.
The filmmakers tried to recreate Oct. 16, 2010. The teams were the same. The coaches were the same. The family members came back. The paramedics were there. The players who would re-enact the sequence watched the play three times before lining up and making it all look real.
She interviewed the player who hit Norton.
All of this meant Norton had to watch the play again, something he had avoided for years.
“My fear was that I’d watch it and I’d have a feeling of regret that I could have done something to prevent it,” he said. “That it would be really emotional. When I did see it, I didn’t have any regret.”
Norris’ feelings about the sport are no different today than before she took on this project.
“I have a son and it has not made me think I won’t let him play football. This was an accident,” she said. “You’re more likely to get into an auto accident than [hurt doing] this. We have to live to our fullest potential.”
It’s advice that Norton himself would give. “I would never discourage someone from playing the game,” he said, although he does admit that the big hits do make him cringe. “The concussions are the ones that scare me the most.
“What happened to me is so rare. It was just a mistimed hit that caused me to be a quadriplegic.”
Chris Norton today
Norton met Norris in 2017, the year before he was to marry Emily Summers, and he agreed to the title of the movie, 7 Yards, which was going to be the length of his walk down the aisle on his wedding day.
“I had never even walked seven yards,” he said.
Norton had trained for five to six hours a day to make his graduation walk, and then he just continued that schedule for his nuptials.
He has since started The Chris Norton Foundation which raises money to purchase equipment for hospitals and care facilities to help people in similar situations. He’s also started a wheelchair camp for kids.
Chris and Emily have since moved to Florida where they have a large family. They have fostered 18 children, and currently have six kids in the house, ages 2 to 11.
Like anyone, he has his share of complaints. What he does not have is regrets.
Norton is a font of inspiration and advice, and he offers his wisdom to those who’ve been injured as well as to those who encounter those who have been injured.
“I get from people, ‘I’m so sorry for you,’ you don’t know me. I love my life,” he said. “Their heart is in the right place, because they are thinking of what they would be like in that situation. I would have thought the same thing.”
Norton has advice for what people can say in that situation: “Talk to them like anybody else, because we are. Treat us like a person.
“What sticks out is I’m in a chair and I have physical challenges,” he said, adding, “People who walk and jump are miserable, too. My life isn’t sad. You can be happy despite struggles. You don’t have to have everything perfect in your life to be happy.”