STEWARTVILLE, Minn. — Chris Norton can easily imagine what his life might have been like if not for the spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic.
He’d likely be a desk-bound businessman, stable and secure — yet a life nowhere near as fulfilling as the one he actually leads today in a wheelchair.
“I mean, if I could go back and change the play, I wouldn’t change anything,” Norton said, referring to the life-altering football injury as a Luther College freshman nine years ago. “I’m living a life more purposeful than anything I could ever imagine.”
Today Norton travels the country as a motivational speaker. His nonprofit, the Chris Norton Foundation, provides opportunities to people with spinal cord and neuromuscular disabilities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
His story — both walking across the stage to accept his college degree at Luther and down the aisle at his wedding — were covered by the national media, including People Magazine and “Good Morning, America.” Norton and his wife, Emily Summers, have adopted five children and been foster parents to 17.
In mid-June, Norton, 27, returned to the place where his transformation began, where he began to see life’s potential in a chair.
But instead being a camp participant at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in Stewartville, Norton was its host and inspiration. His goal: To give to other children and adults who use wheelchairs the hope and meaning the camp gave him.
Norton wants to make the camp a regular event, not only in Minnesota but across the country.
“(The message) I’m trying to get across to all these kids and adults is, you don’t have to walk, you don’t have to be like everyone else to live a great life,” Norton said.
Norton was an 18-year-old freshman at Luther when he suffered his injury. Rushing down field on a kickoff, Norton saw the ball carrier running through a hole and dove for his legs. But Norton mistimed his jump and his head collided with the runner’s legs. At first, Norton thought he had suffered a stinger — a momentary paralysis.
“I tried pushing off the ground, but nothing was working,” Norton said, soon realizing that the injury was much more severe. “I thought the fun was over. What am I going to be able to do?”
Norton had suffered a C3-C4 fracture in his neck and given a 3% chance of ever feeling or moving anything below his neck again. He was flown to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for emergency surgery. Eventually, Norton was able to shrug his left shoulder, marking the beginning of his fight to recover as much mobility as he could.
Two years after his injury, Norton attended his first wheelchair-and-sports camp at Ironwood Springs. The experience proved to be a revelation to Norton.
Bob Bardwell, the ranch’s founder and a paraplegic, had first met Norton and his family at the hospital after Norton’s injury. He says the camp became a pivotal moment in Norton’s life, “really kind of turned his life around.”
“This camp really opened my eyes,” Norton said. “I knew it could open the eyes of other people with similar experiences. That’s where it was planted in my heart: ‘I have to do something like this on my own.’”
In May 2015, Norton rose from his chair and haltingly walked across the stage with his then-girlfriend, Emily Sommers, by his side, at his graduation from Luther College. The video became a social media sensation, with more than 300 million people around the world watching it.
Norton found himself an inspiration to millions and that knowledge served to motivate Norton even more.
Walking at his graduation had primarily sprung from a desire to be more independent, to walk at graduation. Seeing how his example impacted and inspired others, Norton and Summers replicated the moment at their wedding, when the couple walked together down a 7-yard aisle — one yard for every year since the accident.
The camp is an extension of Norton’s mission: That a life of meaning and reward are as open to people in wheelchairs as able-bodied people. Norton’s camp has two distinctive features. It’s free, paid for through his foundation, and is family-based, open to the parents and siblings of those in wheelchairs.
The four-day camp included adaptive tennis and softball, horseback riding and zip lining, archery and BB gun shooting for the 25 campers who use wheelchairs and their families. The effect of the camp is measured in smiles.
“One mom was saying, ‘I’ve never seen my son smile so much in his life,’” Norton said. “Hearing things like that. How does it not get you fired up?”
Jeff Bass of Hills, Minn., was at the camp with his 19-year-old son, Trenton, who became a quadriplegic two years ago in a football accident similar to Norton’s. He said Norton reached out to Trenton and his family soon after Trenton’s injury.
Bass said his son was at first uncertain about attending a camp with a bunch of kids in wheelchairs. But he ended up loving it.
“It’s hard to keep track of all we’ve done this week,” Bass said. “It’s kind of flown by.”
He said Norton’s example infuses the camp with a can-do spirit.
“It hard not to be positive in life when you see a person like Chris. He’s such a positive role model,” Bass said.