Chris Norton was a football player. That was his identity in high school and into his college career, when he suited up as a freshman at Division III Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in 2010.
That changed, however, in a game his freshman season, when he hit his head on the ball-carrier's knee during a tackle and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Norton, who is now more than a decade past his injury, visited Turnstone on Friday morning as the featured speaker for the Start Strong: Limitless Possibilities breakfast in support of Turnstone's Elite Athlete Scholarship Fund.
Norton, a motivational speaker discussed his injury and the subsequent recovery process for nearly an hour, detailing his battle to regain feeling in parts of his body, his return to school and his eventual walk – with help from his then-fiancée – across the stage at his graduation, a moment that was captured on video and received more than 300 million views on Facebook.
“I feel really fortunate to be able to travel, share my story, the lessons I've learned from the adversity I've gone through,” said Norton, who was given a 3% chance of ever regaining movement below the neck at the time of his injury. “We all go through challenges in life and we're all going to feel like giving up and quitting and I want to give people that hope and that belief that life is still fun and meaningful, even if it's not perfect.
“To come to Fort Wayne, to see Turnstone, the beautiful facilities, it reminds me of my hometown in Iowa, that Midwest, good people feel,” he added.
Norton is the subject of the 2021 Netflix documentary “7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story.” The title is a reference to the distance he walked on his wedding day in 2018.
Norton spent his talk sitting in his wheelchair, and finished by standing up with the help of his brother-in-law as the assembled breakfast crowd stood and applauded.
Among those in attendance were members of the Woodlan football team, along with coach Mike Smith, who is entering his second year leading the Warriors. The players spoke with Norton afterward and took a photo with him.
Smith noted they could only bring a certain number of players for one table at the breakfast and had to turn some away because so many wanted to attend.
“Our team motto is ...being selfless, taking ownership, unity, larger purpose,” said Smith, who added that his team plans to partner with Turnstone for community service this winter. “That's very much what (Norton)'s driving home. It's not just about the game or winning this game or scoring a touchdown. That's what I try to drive home to our players.
“More than likely, none of us are going to play in the NFL or coach in the NFL, so there's more to it than the X's and O's.”
After Norton finished speaking, Turnstone also introduced some of the local Paralympians who will be heading to the Tokyo Games this summer. Among those who got a round of applause were cyclist Tom Davis, men's goalball player Tyler Merren, women's goalball player Lisa Czechowski and women's goalball coach Jake Czechowski.