Chris Norton inspires people by standing. He can't walk without assistance, but on Nov. 13 he will win the America's Choice Honor for the CBS Courage in Sports award.
Norton began October 16, 2010 as a normal college student with no chance of winning the award, given to individuals who overcome obstacles to achieve their sports dreams. He was a special teams player for Luther College, a Division III school in Decorah, Iowa. In the third quarter he was covering the kickoff, running down the Luther College sidelines. His family had a great view to watch him make the tackle. The returner cut toward the middle and Chris' head got caught on the ball carrier's knee.
"You would have never known someone was hurt," Chris' father Terry said. "It wasn't an ooh-ahh tackle."
Chris didn't get up. He'd played through a 30 percent tear in his shoulder and broken nose in high school. He'd always been the type of kid coaches had to drag off the field. Now he was being carried off on a stretcher. On the same day, in the same quarter, Luther's Chris Norton and Rutgers' Eric LeGrand suffered spinal cord injuries covering kickoff returns. Both were paralyzed. Both expect to walk again.
Chris admits rehab is the hardest thing he's ever done, but not much has come easy for the 19-year-old. He grew up with a reading disability, but worked with a tutor to graduate high school with a 3.86 GPA. At age 10 he was upset after a basketball practice and wouldn't leave a gym in Altoona until he could make 10 left-handed lay-ups in a row. His father, then the head basketball coach at Bonburant-Farrar high school, tried to tell Chris that some of his high school kids couldn't make 10 left-handed lay-ups in a row, but Chris was never content with being average. He was never the biggest or fastest kid, but he finished high school as an All-District football player, a 1,000 point scorer on the basketball court and an Iowa state track meet qualifier.
"It's like he was preparing for this his entire life," said Alex Norton, Chris' older sister, who now stays with him in Decorah and drives him to physical therapy in Rochester, Minnesota two days a week.
Doctors told Chris he had a three-percent chance of ever walking again. When he started physical therapy, the Mayo Clinic therapists said the average person with a spinal cord dislocation gets three hours of physical therapy per day. He immediately requested four hours, because he isn't average. His family also hung a list of things Chris could do at home in addition to the four hours of PT. Chris regularly uses his hand bike and foot bike during his "free time" -- like when he's doing an interview for SI.com. Chris can now walk and stand with assistance, something that helped him earn the Courage in Sports Award. To Chris, winning the award is an honor he shares with the family that has supported him throughout his journey.
"I really want this award to not be about me, but how I did it," Chris said. "I couldn't have gotten to where I am without the support of the community."
That community has been inspired by Chris' story. His Caring Bridge website has received almost 400,000 visits. The Norton family regularly gets messages of encouragement from people they've never met. Chris even picked up an adopted Grandma -- LuAnne Smith -- who met Chris on her 70th birthday and now sends him care packages weekly and goes out to dinner with Chris and Alex.
Luther College football has a saying: 1-0 everyday and everyway. "He epitomizes that saying to the nth degree," said Coach Mike Durnin. On September 10 Chris joined his teammates as an honorary captain. With his teammates' help he walked out to the coin toss and stood for the National Anthem.
"They took a tragic event and made sure it didn't become a tragedy," Durnin said.
That message has spread outside of Decorah. Chris, a life-long Iowa fan, has spoken to Hawkeyes including offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe and former quarterback Ricky Stanzi. He's also talked to Pittsburgh Steelers' safety Ryan Clark, who suffered a near-death experience of his own due to complications of his sickle-cell trait. The NFL player said Chris' story shows that "with faith, family and belief you can do anything." (Both O'Keefe and Clark were reluctant to do interviews because they wanted the story to be entirely about Chris and his family.)
"This guy's just doing it on his own," O'Keefe said. "He and his sister are doing all the work."
Chris' sister Alex, a registered nurse who graduated from college last year, moved to Decorah to take care of her younger brother while he continues his studies at Luther College. She insists that she isn't making a sacrifice. Her college experience included some of the best four years of her life and she just wants her brother to be able to do the same thing.
"I don't really feel like I've lost anything," Alex said. "This is our new normal."
That new normal means Terry and Deb Norton own a handicap-accessible van paid for by the NCAA Catastrophic Insurance Program. Their youngest child, 15-year-old Katie, takes time away from her high school friends to see her big brother. The Norton family always spent Sunday nights together eating pizza or grilling out (the kids knew not to make plans), but Chris' situation has brought them even closer together. They're optimistic that Chris will be able to stand and walk without assistance because Chris has regained feeling in all parts of his body.
Chris also has these goals, but doesn't set a timeline. There's no fixed formula for recovering from a spinal cord injury. A year after the accident he can feed himself, brush his teeth and walk with assistance. In October he stood unaided for three minutes straight -- a personal record. Last week he had his best walking therapy and is closer than ever to going from a sitting position to a standing position on his own. All he knows right now is that any progress is good progress.
"I just take one day at a time and try to be better for tomorrow," Chris said.
He's shown thousands of people how to have that outlook on life, just by standing up.