“Something I’ve always understood is that your future will take care of itself when you take care of today.” – Chris Norton
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Chris Norton (@chrisnorton16) was a talented 18 year old college football player with a promising future. Chris suffered a massive injury while playing football in College, that let him without any feeling from the neck down and being told that he would never walk again. Chris was determined to prove the doctors wrong, so he pushed himself through grueling daily workouts until four years later, he walked across the stage to receive his college diploma. He went on to find love and he and his wife have a new book just out called “The Seven Longest Yards.” The book is a message of resiliency and hope that will inspire you.
Listen to this episode to hear how Chris is able to overcome so that he can be successful in his and his wife’s new life.
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Hi folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Welcome back. Thanks for joining me today. I super-appreciate it – as I always say, I do not take your time for granted. There are so many things vying for your attention, just the fact that you’re listening to this is amazing to me. And I’m super humble. So thank you.
Before I introduce my guest – Chris Norton – I want to let you know that we have recently launched a new certification program for our coaches – Unbeatable Mind coaches – and it is pretty cool. I’m not going to give you too many details now, but if you’re interested in coaching for your own development. Or to coach your company team, or your sports team. Or you want to become a leadership coach as a career or for a career – then I highly encourage you to check out our new coach certification program.
And this is one of a kind. There is no other program. It’s a full integrated development program like Unbeatable Mind, where we train physically, mentally, emotionally, intuitionally and spiritually. And now you can learn how to do it and coach it. And earn money.
So check out that program at unbeatablemind.com. Thanks very much.
All right. Chris Norton. What an interesting guy. So Chris – yeah, I’m not gonna get into a lot of detail right now, because I think it would probably… I think we’ll just talk about his background, but Chris has got… He’s married and has five adopted girls. 17 foster children.
Fascinating. I can’t wait to learn about that. He’s got his own foundation which has raised over a million dollars for helping others with spinal cord injuries, neurological disorders and stuff like that.
Chris – this all came about, as we’ll learn, because he was injured quite severely on the college gridiron. And it shaped the rest of his life, obviously.
So that’s all I’m gonna say. Chris, thanks for joining me today.
Chris. Hey Mark. Thanks for having me on.
Mark. Yeah. Super-appreciate it. Nice to meet you. I know I speak for the listeners – we can’t wait to hear your story. How you overcame such a tremendous challenge.
So fill in the gaps of what I didn’t say maybe by just giving us a little sense of who you were when you were growing up, and then that critical inflection point that changed the trajectory of your life.
Chris. Yeah, growing up in a small town in Iowa – the Midwest, and just a happy-go-lucky kid. Great family. Just great life.
And I also had just a chip on my shoulder. I was really competitive. Not the most talented, but just wanted to do my best and work as hard as I can. I think my dad – my parents really taught me that value and like I said – I love competition. I love football, I love basketball… And I had a chance to play college football. And I could play right away.
And so I jumped at that chance to further my education, play football…
Mark. Where’d you play, by the way?
Chris. Luther College. Up in northeast Iowa.
And that’s where everything really changed for me. I got all these dreams to be this American – all-American athlete, meet the girl of my dreams, to earn a business degree and someday make enough money to own a lake house. Or better yet – the girl of my dreams family already owns a lake house.
But sometimes life has a better plan for you, than the plan you had for yourself.
Mark. That’s true. So, what was the moment…? Tell us about the moment that changed that? That god changed your plans.
Chris. It was October 16, 2010. My freshman year. Sixth game of the season.
It was a beautiful fall day and I worked my way up on the special team unit for the kickoff. And so we scored a touchdown. We’re kicking the ball off. I’m sprinting down field as hard as I can go.
And I see this opening forming. And I know that ball-carrier is gonna run through it. He’s gonna try and score a touchdown.
I’m gonna stop him and drive my shoulder so hard through his legs that he’s gonna drop the ball.
Well, I make that diving tackle, but I miss-time my jump. Just by a split second. So instead of getting my head in front of the ball-carrier, my head collided right with his legs. Ultimately his knee struck the side of my head. And in an instant, I lose all feeling and movement from my neck down.
I hear the collision of players above me. The whistle blows. The pile clears, but I can’t get up. I’m trying so hard to just push off the ground, but nothing in my body is working.
Now I’m just confused. And my first thing I jump to is like “okay, it’s a stinger. There’s like a pinched nerve or something very minor is happening. But just got to give it a little bit of time, before I can just walk off and get up off the field.
Mark. You experience pain at this moment? Or was it just…?
Chris. No pain. Nothing. Just nothing from the neck down. I felt like I was just like a head. And the rest of my body was just turned off. But yeah, like someone just pulled the cord literally for my whole, entire body.
And so I’m just waiting and waiting… This is already getting embarrassing. Everyone’s waiting for me to get up. Now I have all these athletic trainers and the paramedics are getting involved.
But then when the paramedics called in for a helicopter, that’s when I knew that this is serious. At that point I just closed my eyes and I tried to just block it out. I tried not to accept it.
And that was the only control that I had at that moment, was just to close my eyes and just pray to god that this is just temporary. That “oh, give me the strength to walk off, be in the sidelines, just let me be a normal kid – 18 year-old. Don’t change my life, don’t change my plan. Like, I love my life.”
But again – different plans in mind.
Mark. Wow. Were you communicating at that point with anyone? Or were you just kind of silent?
Chris. I was silent. I was dealing with most of it internally just letting the athletic trainers and paramedics do their thing.
Now they asked me questions like “hey Chris, can you try making a fist with your hand?” and I try to make a fist with my hand – try to squeeze it – and nothing happened. Then they would ask “Chris, can you feel us touching your leg?” and I just say no. It was always no. I couldn’t feel a thing.
And so I was almost getting more and more frustrated the more they had me talk and answer those questions.
Mark. And after you were able to communicate with your parents – what were they going through at this time? Obviously it was traumatic for them, but can you describe what the experience was like from their perspective?
Chris. Yeah, they were in the stance. They were watching. And to see me laying there completely still was uneasy for them.
Mark. To say the least…
Chris. I mean, most of the time when you see like a bad injury, or something happen on the field – someone’s rolling around, they’re grabbing their knee, grabbing their ankle, their shoulder… You know, they’re grabbing something… They’re moving, you can tell they’re in pain.
But the fact that I was just lying there completely still, lifeless was really scary for them. And then eventually they come down on the field and they’re trying to keep it together. They’re just trying to stay strong for me. They don’t want to jump to any conclusions and just again kind of let the medical personnel do their thing, before jumping to anything irrational. But just hoping for the best.
Mark. Mm-hmm. And so what was the actual diagnosis or prognosis?
Chris. Yeah. It was a c3, c4 fracture, grade four dislocation – a severe spinal cord injury.
And after surgery that night, the next day the surgeon told me I had a 3% chance to ever regain any feeling or movement back below my neck. And I was stunned.
Because it’s not a 3% chance to walk again. It’s a 3% chance to move or feel a thing back below your neck.
Mark. How did they even come up with that number? I mean that sounds pretty random.
Chris. I know, right? I agree. I have no idea how they come up with those numbers. But like it’s something that they probably need to really reconsider, because the fact, is some people would really buy into those odds.
Mark. Right! The self-fulfilling prophecy syndrome, right? So why try if it’s only 3%?
Chris. Exactly and thankfully I’ve always been wired to beat the odds. I like to be the underdog, I like things stacked against me. Like, I don’t mind it. I feel like it rises… It helps me rise to the occasion.
Mark. Pretty extreme way to prove that to the world…
Chris. Yeah, I wasn’t asking for that, but thankfully I’ve always had that kind of mentality of like even if it doesn’t look in my favor like it doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna quit.
Mark. Where do you think that attitude came from, Chris? Was it an attitude to your father instilled in you? Or do you think you were born with it?
Chris. Yeah I would say definitely my dad always had that grit, never quit kind of attitude. Plus I think just being an athlete, being a student that just helps teach you, because I’ve had workouts and practices where I didn’t think I could finish, but I finished. I had games where it looks like there’s no chance of a comeback, but we came back.
And as a student-athlete you fail over and over again, but you know you have to show up the next day. So I think just those repetitions has just kind of built up your confidence and understanding of it takes hard work to get where you want to go.
Mark. Right. Now you were in Iowa you said, right?
Mark. Did you work with your hands at all? Like there’s a lot of farming going on up there. Were you an outdoor kid or what you do as a youth?
Chris. I mean as a youth, I was an athlete. I mean, I was playing catch in the yard or doing something with my friends. But always like active.
We weren’t farmers or anything like that, but just sports was my life. That was my identity.
So having that taken away from me in a blink of an eye I was really lost. “Okay, now who am I? Will people still care about me? Love me? And have I lost myself?”
Those are some right away questions and “will I ever be happy, being in a wheelchair? Will I ever meet a girl that would want to be with me?”
Just all these things started pouring in. All these doubts and fears. I just did want to accept where I was. Like, I just had to do something about it.
Mark. Mm-hmm. So describe for us a little bit of the recovery process. What was that like? And when was… Well, first describe the recovery process. Then the follow-up question… I might as well ask it is… At what point did you see a glimmer of hope? Like “oh my god. I can do this,” kind of moment.
Chris. I would say honestly, the first day after surgery I was able to shrug my left shoulder. That was the first movement I was able to get – was just one little shoulder shrug.
Mark. Wow. And did that surprise the doctors, by the way?
Chris. It did. It really surprised them to see that kind of movement. And I just kind of used that as progress as proof that “I’m gonna beat this. I want to keep going.”
And so I’d shrug my left shoulder for hours. I was doing whatever I could just to get a little bit better. So it started out with shrugging my shoulder. And it was just even transitioning out of bed into a wheelchair. I had like this big lift system scoop me up, put me in a power chair.
And then what was difficult about being in a chair is that my blood pressure couldn’t really regulate itself. So it’s like if you’re dehydrated, you’re laying flat and stand up quickly you get that head rush, you get lightheaded. Sometimes you pass out.
Well that’s what I felt like all the time, just being upright just a little bit. Just reclined even.
I had to like push through that nauseated feeling to try to get in my chair, and so I can be my chair. The longer I can be my chair, the more physical therapy and occupational therapy I can do. The more I can do with my arms and my legs. ..
Mark. And the more gravity can do its work too.
Mark. Fascinating. So you had a glimmer of hope right away. That’s amazing because it seems like… Well, obviously the spinal cord wasn’t severed. It must have been hanging on.
Chris. Yeah, it was an incomplete spinal cord injury. So that gave me the opportunity… And then another big breakthrough happened about the fifth week, mark.
So at this fifth week, all I’m training for – all I’m thinking about and praying for is to move something in my legs. Like, I want to walk again. I want to get my life back. I want to get back to college.
Well I’ve been able to regain some sensation in my legs. And I felt this new sensation in my left big toe. And I didn’t know what exactly was going on, but I felt like it was waking up from like a Novocain shot. Just my left big toe.
And so I tell the doctor about this new sensation. Again – I’m really excited about it. I feel like something special is happening.
And I could tell right away as I’m telling him – he could care less. And so I’m begging him “can you at least take my shoe off. Take my sock off, and examine my left big toe. Do whatever you doctors do.”
And he refused. He said, “you know, Chris, you’re experiencing a phantom feeling where you want to believe that you can feel something differently in your left big toe so badly, you tricked yourself into thinking it’s real. But you made it up.”
And I was crushed. And I knew what I was feeling wasn’t this phantom feeling. I knew something was happening, but he could care less.
Then the last thing he tells me before he walks out is that “Chris, you’ll never move anything in your legs ever again.”
Mark. “You’re fired.” that’s what I wanted to say to the guy.
Chris. Yeah, I know. And I was with my dad – and my dad again he’s like the strongest person I know, just mentally – and he started crying. I’d never see him cry before. And I was devastated and that’s when my dad he turns to me, he’s like “Chris, don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do.”
And I look back at him, tears running down my face, and say “I never will.” and I used that as motivation that – you know – I’m gonna prove this guy wrong.
And so I went to work and what started out as you know one-hour therapy to three hours – I asked the hospital for a fourth hour, and they said no. I asked “well, why not?”
And they said, “Well no one’s ever asked for this fourth hour. And never gotten it.”
And eventually I did get that fourth hour.
I asked for a fifth hour. They said no again. And this time they really meant it – I never actually got it.
Mark. But could your dad will help you or work you out or anyone else…?
Chris. Exactly. Yep. So then I had my physical therapist, my occupational therapist – write-up workouts that my dad, that my mom, my sister’s friends could all do with me outside of my scheduled training time. So if I wasn’t sleeping, I was working.
I think when you just work as hard as you can, good things will come your way. Not even a week later after that exchange on thanksgiving morning of all mornings I wiggle that exact left big toe he said I would never move again. And I was so pumped. I was fired up. I was telling every nurse and therapist “you go find that doctor…” who I like to call Dr. Phantom and you bring Dr. Phantom in here and tell him to phantom this. As I wiggle my toe in his face.
I had a lot of things I wanted to tell him. Thankfully he wasn’t there that day.
Mark. (laughing) he probably didn’t dare show his face to you after that.
Chris. Yeah. He didn’t.
Mark. I’m sure that you had ups and downs as you started to see some recovery. What were the low points like? Is there anything that made you wonder if it was worth it?
Chris. Absolutely. Every single night I wondered whether it was worth it. I hated going to bed. I felt like a prisoner trapped in my own body. Like I just wanted to break out of these chains that was like constricting my entire body so badly.
And just lying there staring at the ceiling and just wanting to move my arm. Or just move my leg – just move anything.
Pull the covers up, and that’s when all those doubts just flood in of thinking about my future. Like “where am I gonna go? Like, is it even worth trying? Is it worth all this time?” like yeah, “am I wasting my time?” like, “why am I doing this?”
I just could not wait for the morning. I could not wait for the sun to go up. I could not wait to get back at it, because that’s what kept me distracted. Kept me positive, and focused versus all these fears and insecurities.
Mark. Yeah. The dark night of the soul was actually night for you.
Chris. Oh absolutely. It was horrible. I hated going to bed,
Mark. Were you able to sleep well?
Chris. I wasn’t. I did not sleep well. I eventually got on some sleeping medication. I took that for a number of years, just because when I tried to like move or adjust my body, I would send myself into a panic attack. Just trying so hard to move like something. That was…
Mark. You had the thought that you wanted to flip over, you know, like we all do and you just couldn’t do anything.
Chris. Yeah. Like I’ve had before these muscle spasms where your muscles contract involuntarily. Where my muscle… Like my arm will like contract, you know, fire up and my hand will be like resting on my face while I’m sleeping.
And no matter how hard I would try like I could not move my hand off my face. Things like that. There’s just like “are you kidding me?”
Or like, you have an itch on your face and there’s nothing you want more than just to scratch this itch right on your cheek.
And it just sits there. There’s nothing you can do about it. Was just so frustrating. I remember being in Zen training when I was 21 and it was a pretty strict regimen. Where you couldn’t scratch an itch. You weren’t supposed to move.
And I remember how torturous I thought that was. But I always knew that I could actually scratch that itch if I wanted to. I would just get scolded by the head monk.
Mark. I can’t imagine not being able to scratch the itch. Torturous.
Chris. Yeah, it was.
Mark. So I know from my research that you ended up setting a goal to go back and graduate from college. When did that idea kind of come to you? And how did that motivate you? Why was that the motivator that kept driving you?
Chris. Well the goal… I mean, I always knew I had to get my education – like, that was important to me. That’s always been important to my family. So that was just kind of kind of a… There’s no questions asked. I had to get my education.
And then my parents, my family, really pushed me to go back to Luther College where I was attending before.
But then also the big goal was to then walk across the stage of my college graduation to accept my diploma at the end. And that just gave me this huge goal to shoot for, and to aim for, and to train.
Mark. This goal arose before you had ever actually put any weight and stood up probably right? Or even knew that you could do that?
Chris. I could put weight on my legs, and I could take some steps with a lot of help. So I had a lot of assistance.
Because after that toe wiggle with doctor phantom – that’s when I really started to see like improvements with my quads, and my hamstrings. And started to weight bear on my legs and started to really see some changes happening.
You know, the goal originally was I wanted to walk out of the hospital. And although I could walk with like three people helping me – I could fully weight bear and everything – but it just wasn’t functional. I wasn’t independent like you’d wish for, or hope for.
But I knew I had to just keep working on it. I was seeing progress just little by little and I set that goal.
I knew that graduation was gonna be years in the making, and it would take years of training to make it happen. But something I’ve always understood is that your future will take care of itself, when you take care of today.
Mark. Mm-hmm. I love that. All you really have is today. A series of “todays.”
So you went back to school. You were in a wheelchair. How old were you when you finally made it back to school? Luther?
Chris. I was 19 years old. And I transitioned – thankfully I had the support of my older sister Alex – she moved off campus to kind of help with that transition. Get me to class and get me to some different doctor’s appointments.
And then also I had some of my football teammates – friends I just made in school – they lived with me in an apartment building where they acted like my full-time caregivers. I had one get me up in the morning. And one guy get me across campus to class with my books. Helped me in the cafeteria. Someone also to drive me to different appointments.
So they all pitched in, to make up possible for me to be on campus and to live a somewhat independent college experience.
Mark. Mm-hmm. Wow. That’s true friendship, huh?
Chris. Oh yeah. You find out who your friends are really when things are inconvenient for them, but they’ll inconvenience themselves to be there for you.
So it took you what? Five years to get through the rest of school? Or does that include the first year?
Chris. Including the first year it was it was a total of five years. And so I took a semester off as well – so I took actually two semesters off a whole year off – one semester was just to commit to… I guess both semesters were committed to training. That’s all I did during that time away from school. Was to just train.
And the semester before that graduation walk I moved to Michigan to train at a facility called Barwis Methods, and they’ve had some great success helping people walk again. I knew I wanted to get in that kind of environment that was aggressive with their training.
And that’s all I did, was focus on getting better. Because I wanted to make this graduation walk a reality. It was just something that was planted in my heart and I just had to see it through.
Although there was plenty of times though – and this dream to walk across the stage that I questioned it – like “is it worth it?” like, again like “if this is just insane, why do I care so much?”
But it was just a dream of mine that I just couldn’t help but pursue. And pursue with everything I got. And thankfully it worked out pretty well.
Mark. Describe the graduation day for us. What was the prep like? What was…? How did it go down? I mean, you obviously didn’t… You didn’t just walk the entire procession with your class. You walked across the stage itself?
Chris. Yeah, so leading up to it and I was doing four to six hours a day, getting ready. And then with the help of my training partner – mine was my now wife, Emily – but I proposed to her the day before my graduation walk. And she was the one that was going to be helping me walk across the stage. And so that was really special to have her walk me across the stage as my fiancé.
But something that we did getting ready for the graduation. The graduation was in the morning and my body reacts better with a longer time period. So we woke up like 4 or 3 a.m. Just to kind of get my body woken and acclimated. And then just did some stretching, some warm-ups. And just let the hard work over the last couple of years do its thing.
And we also practiced with the gowns and the cap. And did a bunch of different simulations to make sure this walk could be successful.
But I was nervous that the audience or the people there might get frustrated. Or I might get booed off the stage, because graduations are long and they’re slow.
And it’s hot in there, too. It’s like a really hot time of the year and so I’m like “man, I gotta really go fast…
Mark. Right. You can’t be up there for 20 minutes.
Chris. Exactly. So I was kind of worried about that.
But then they pushed my chair up to the one side of the stage. And I stand up with my fiancé then, Emily. And the roar of the crowd was something you couldn’t ignore. And they just cheered me on every step of the way. And it just got louder and louder.
And then I get to the end and I turn out to face the crowd – acknowledge them and everyone’s crying. Like guys – like grown men, like friends of mine that I’ve never seen cry in my life – crying.
It was just such an emotional pull on so many people. And I was blown away. I was caught off guard. I did not expect that, at all.
And thankfully though I didn’t… I hired, actually, one of my college buddies to videotape the graduation walk. And then we put it out online and it went viral. And now over 300 million people across the world have seen that video.
Mark. Unbelievable. Yeah, I was tearing up just listening to that account. Holy cow.
So that was that. And all of a sudden, the next day you’re done. You graduated. And did you experience any kind of like “what’s next?” depression or like post- you know, post-graduation anxiety and feeling down about what’s next?
Chris. You know, for me I honestly didn’t. I couldn’t actually, because it happened to my fiancé, Emily. She went through a really lull of depression and anxiety that really put a strain on our relationship.
She’s such a strong independent woman and just does not like to be vulnerable. Does not like to be helped.
But she’s kind of a giver. She’s always giving and helping others, but doesn’t want it in return. And so it was something that she like made this stance that like she’s like “I have to get through this myself. Like, if I can’t get through this on my own then I’m doomed for life.”
Like, she had these wrong ideas and she also was in denial that she had depression and anxiety. She’s like “no way I’m depressed or anxiety… I have a great family, fiancé, a great life. Nothing major has happened to me.”
Like we both had this notion that like something catastrophic has to happen to you in order for you to be depressed. And that’s just not the case. You can just have a chemical imbalance, and it could just be a transition. And that transition from college to the real world.
So we really lost ourselves, but eventually what changed everything for her was we went back to church. And just through that faith just kind of gave her the courage to acknowledge she does need help. And so she went and saw a health specialist – mental health specialist – and she gave Emily some medication. And she said “in about three weeks, you’ll notice a change.”
And literally three weeks, and completely changed her reality. Just completely….
Mark. So she did have a chemical imbalance.
Chris. Yeah, 100%. And it changed everything. And she was able to thankfully get through it. And that’s also a big part of why we wrote the book that we just came out with called “The Seven Longest Yards.” it’s co-authored by my wife and I, and that’s a big part of it too. Just sharing that story and hopefully people will get help sooner. Like, don’t suffer that long. It’s okay to get help. Like getting help is a strength not a weakness. And she kept thinking it’s a weakness for her to go get help, or to get on medication. But it’s not.
Mark. I agree with you. It’s interesting you say that. So that’s one of the biggest lessons we teach in our SEALfit training program which is all about teaming, is that it’s a strength to ask for help. And you’re not going to make it through the hardest challenges unless you’re able to ask and to receive.
Now “The Seven Longest Yards,” when I first saw that I thought it was a reference to the football field and the accident, but it’s not is it?
Chris. No. So the seven yards is the goal that I’d set, “I’m gonna walk Emily seven yards down the aisle of our wedding.”
And it was seven years since my spinal cord injury, from the college football game. So it was kind of ties both those in and it’s also seven yards is three yards further than the graduation walk.
And we wanted to do it side-by-side, which Emily was in front of me for the graduation walk which gives me the most support. With her going on my side – my right hip – I lose a lot of that support. And so it involved a lot more training, to make sure that I could even take a single step to get those seven yards.
Mark. Help me understand visually. So if she’s walking in front – did you have like a hand on her shoulder or something? Or was it just…?
Chris. Yeah, so from the front with the graduation walk, I was hanging on to her arms. And she was hanging on to like my upper arm.
Mark. She was facing you walking backwards?
Chris. Yes. And then when I start to like fatigue, she’ll move her hands down to my hips and kind of help support my balance. Because that’s where I usually lose my strength. It’s like my core, my balancing to give my legs step through. And so that’s what we did for the graduation walk.
So then you can visualize her facing in the same direction as me, just on one side of me, I lose a lot of that leaning support that I had right in front of me. And so all it’s coming from is just my right side.
And so the first time we actually practiced that wedding walk – about eight months before the wedding – I couldn’t even take one step. I was so frustrated. Like, just losing that support threw everything off for me. And again I thought about quitting.
And I also had the pressure to that we had a film crew that was coming to film the wedding and they’re a documentary crew – so they’re doing a documentary of my story – and they already named the movie “Seven Yards.” So I had to walk the 7 yards.
Mark. I love that.
So – you obviously did – you trained for it and succeeded. Were there any glitches in the wedding? Or did it go off without a hitch, so to speak?
Chris. I mean the wedding was amazing it was perfect. But I mean, there was glitches though. But I guess we don’t focus on the glitches. That’s just life. So like my family stood me up to walk down the aisle, like one thing that happened was like my pants were too loose. Like my belt needed to get tighter. So we had to stop, tighten up my belt…
Mark. So you didn’t drop your drawers…
Chris. Exactly. And then I realized that my pant leg got like pushed up somehow. So then we had to stop, she pushed my pant leg down, and then she said something in her microphone “don’t want to lose his pants,” and made everybody laugh.
You know, you probably won’t see that action in the video when they edit it right? But it’s something that we laugh about and we didn’t care about, because again, that’s just life. It’s not gonna go… Not everything’s gonna go perfect. And I think if you can just accept it and enjoy the special moments and what’s good, you’re gonna live a fulfilling, happy life.
Mark. Yeah, I agree. It’s amazing.
adoption and fostering
Mark. So you’ve since gone on to adopt a number of young women, and foster some children. Tell us about both of those experiences. And the power of serving others as a parent.
Chris. Yeah, so this was really put on Emily’s heart – this is Emily’s calling and passion – is to help children. And to help children who don’t receive love, they don’t see receive care and aren’t safe.
So she was first introduced to this girl named Whitley. She mentored Whitley when Emily was in high school – Whitley was in elementary. And Whitley was then put into foster care and that’s when Emily realized and learned about foster care and group homes. And these group homes are just homes where kids… Pretty much orphanages. They just renamed orphanages to group homes.
So just kids just living in these barracks kind of thing. Just with one or a couple people there to look after them. And their parents were out trying to get their lives together, so they can get them back.
But unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. And so Emily just was called on her, and she told me about it too – right away, when we first met, “hey like this is what we’re gonna do someday. So I hope you can accept that, otherwise we’re going to move on from our relationship.”
I’m like “okay. I’ll do it.” I had no idea what it was about, but when we were 23, 24 years old – Whitley now was 17 – and she called just crying and that she didn’t have anywhere to go. She was going to be put into juvenile detention. She’s been through 18 different placements. A lot of her family’s out of the picture and she’s tried committing suicide, she’s like tried… Been a lot of different laundry list of bad things have happened.
And just needed a place to go otherwise it could cost her life.
And so Emily and I talked about it. And although we did not feel like we were equipped, like we were ready. But we also knew we could give her a better life than what she’s living now. Could give her a chance.
And so we did what it took to get our foster care license. And we took her in with the goal that we’re gonna help her graduate high school. Like she was way behind in school and we knew that would be a huge thing for her. And momentum and a foundation to fall back to. To have her high school diploma.
And so we pushed her and we cared for her, and during that time she was able to graduate high school. And then she transitioned back to her hometown. And then that’s when Emily and I were like “let’s open our home up to more kids.” and I told her “let’s just do one kid under the age of two.”
And then our first call came in and it was a two month old, and a two year old. And she’s really persuasive and so we eventually said yes to both. And then it started out with two. And then it went to three, then four, then five… We got the five from a sibling group of four girls. They asked if we could take one of them, and we took all of them. And those four girls and we ended up adopting those four girls this last February.
And then we even got up to seven at one point. Seven. Seven girls too. Like we have a female dog, as well, so I’m like completely outnumbered.
Mark. (laughing) yeah, you must be able to hold the space pretty well. With your maleness.
Chris. (laughing) I try. I try, but yeah, so it’s been such a blessing for us. Like we went into it thinking “we can really be a blessing to these kids, and be there for them, love on them, give them a safe spot.”
But like they’ve been such a blessing to us. It’s been the best thing that we’ve ever done. And to see the transformations and the behavior changes. And these kids becoming their best selves and realizing that they are special, they are loved, they are cared for… There is people that care about them. It’s really neat to see.
Mark. That is neat. And I love that. The more you give, the more you receive in return, right? I mean, that’s a universal lesson there. What a great thing you’re doing for these kids.
Chris. Thank you.
Mark. So your nonprofit – tell us about that. And how you want to get back to others who are injured similar to what you were. Some sort of spinal cord injury.
Mark. Yeah, so going through my injury really opened my eyes to other people’s stories with spinal cord injuries. And other neuromuscular disorders. And I was so fortunate to be an NCAA athlete, because when I was injured on their field, their insurance policies help cover all my medical and rehab expenses.
Which is unheard of. Like it has covered so much…
Mark. Like millions of dollars probably.
Chris. Yeah, it’s such a financial burden to be injured. And there’s a lot of things that your primary insurance – most insurances – don’t cover. But this instability insurance would cover. And so just seeing and meeting other people who just desperately wanted an opportunity – just a chance at a recovery. And just a chance to be healthy, unable to do so just because they can’t afford it.
Like, it just broke my heart and I just knew I wanted to do something about it. So I started to get asked to speak when I was in college. To give presentations. And one of the groups I spoke to was this big nonprofit. And afterwards there was people that like “hey, can we give money to you for like a cause? Like, is there something that you need paid for? Or equipment?”
And I got to thinking about it like “well, I don’t actually need anything. Like I’m actually really well taken care of.”
“But I do know a lot of people don’t.” and so that’s when I started the nonprofit – the Chris Norton foundation – to use the funds that to provide rehab equipment. The specialized rehab equipment that you don’t get access to most often.
Because it’s not all created equal. Like if you go to a gym like a YMCA in Florida and you go to Idaho it’s gonna be pretty similar. But when you go to a rehab facility in different cities and different states – it’s completely different. And so what you have access to can really change your trajectory for what you get back in your spinal cord injury.
And so we wanted to strengthen that, and give more people the opportunity to have access to it. And then we also started a wheelchair camp for kids and families.
So it’s a completely paid for week where these kids and their parents, siblings come and they do horseback riding, zip lining – we did laser tag – we did a bunch of just like fun activities, and they didn’t have to pay a penny for it. And that was a ton of fun.
And just relationship and community building, and no one wanted to leave, which is always a great problem. And everybody wants to come back for next year.
So we’re really excited about that. And also then I’m really passionate about my motivational speaking. So I travel the country, I’m sharing my story and perseverance and how you can find the power to stand up to the obstacles that knock you down in life. And how to reshape your reality with your attitude.
And so probably a lot of things that you probably talk about. But I’m really passionate about it, because I’ve learned that I couldn’t allow my physical paralysis to paralyze my mindset.
Mark. Right. No, that’s such a powerful message. Yeah we should connect on that. I have a close affinity with your mission, because we have a foundation which is to support veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress. But the individual – my friend who I asked to lead it for me, is paralyzed. Broke his neck.
And not once, but just twice actually in the same place. He made an almost full recovery when he broke it trampolining in his early ’20s – he was an athlete as well. And was able to recover most of his functions.
But then he was fixing a light on this house he was building in Colorado and fell off a ladder. Broke in the same place a second time. This was about seven or eight years ago.
And so I went to visit him at the… Some spinal institute out in Colorado… I forget the name of it…
Chris. Probably Craig hospital.
Mark. Yeah. The Craig hospital. So went and visited him at the Craig hospital, and gave him all the Unbeatable Mind lessons and stuff on tape. So he could listen to them.
And then he went back to teaching, but it was really hard for him to teach college in that state.
So I brought him in to my SEALfit program to help – ostensibly help out – but it was also to keep him under pressure – you know, to keep him training.
And then when we started this foundation I said “what a great person to run that.” and so he’s been running the foundation. But anyways, I brought that up, because I know a little bit about how challenging it has been for him to try to recover. And he hasn’t gotten out of the wheelchair yet. It’s gonna be a little harder for him, because he’s like 60 years old now. The older you get…
But we should talk about you speaking at one of our… We’re starting to do these annual dinners for courage… These fundraising dinners to raise money for vets. You would be a very inspirational story and the fact that you know we had this kind of connection.
Chris. Oh yeah absolutely.
Mark. We actually had Chris reeves son speak at our first one. Matthew reeves. Yeah, a neat guy.
Anyways, I went down a little rabbit hole there. Sorry about that. But let’s connect on that. I’d love to have you out.
Chris. Yeah, that sounds great.
Mark. So what is…? We got to kind of wrap this up, but… What’s the situation now with walking versus not walking? Are you in a wheelchair most of the day? Or are you mobile?
Chris. I’m in a wheelchair most of the day. I am dependent on that. Like, if I wanted to walk I’d need like somebody to walk with me. I’d need my wife or a friend or someone to help me with that.
So I use wheelchair full-time. It’s power assisted wheel so it’s kind of a… It’s a manual chair with these batteried wheels that will allow me to get around a little bit easier.
Just because I’m a quadriplegic. I still don’t have full strength and movement in my arms and my hands.
And so working on that. Just being more independent. But honestly, I’m not training nearly as much as I used to. Obviously now I have a lot of kids. And I’m just really passionate about my nonprofit, my speaking… Just came out with this book. We have a film coming out as well… A documentary called “Seven Yards.”
So there’s a lot of projects and things that I’m involved with. And that just motivates me. Like, I love being able to use my pain for a purpose. And the first five years of my injury – I’m almost nine years out – and the first five years I was obsessed… I had to walk in order for me to be happy, and fulfilled with my life.
And I no longer feel that need. I don’t feel that desire. While I’m hopeful that there might be a breakthrough in the future, I’m very content with where I’m at. Because where my joy and passion and everything comes from is just like what I’m able to give to others and the love I’m able to give. Not by my physical movements.
And so being able to add value to other people, inspire them, and give them hope is what fires me up – being a dad, being a husband those are things that I’m really passionate about. And just the training it’s just not nearly… I mean, I just can’t do four to six hours a day anyway.
I’m still focused… I’m still working on it, but just working on those other projects.
Mark. Right makes sense. You know sometimes in my experience anyway… Sometimes when you finally surrender to a reality that’s when openings occur, and it might be necessary and all of a sudden something will shift. And technology, as you say, hope is probably not the right word it’s almost an expectation. You know, some of the things that the Ruiz foundation was working on and all the different stuff that’s happening.
I mean there’s a fairly good chance spinal cord injuries will be healable or, you know, with technology, be able to walk.
Chris. Yeah, hopefully there will be no need for these wheelchairs.
Mark. Wow. Well, awesome. So the book is “The Seven Longest Yards,” and your website is chrisnorton.com, is that right?
Mark. Dot org. Okay.
Chris. Someone got the com. I can’t get the com, but I got the org.
Mark. Okay. Well that works. Chrisnorton.org. Is there anything else that the listener should know? Like anything you want them to direct their attention to?
Chris. No, I think go to that website and you can go a lot of different directions from that -whether it’s the speaking, the foundation, the book, the film. My social media as well – I’m pretty active – and my handle is chrisanorton16, and I stay pretty involved with like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
Mark. Okay awesome. Chris thanks very much. Thanks for being such a great example of how to overcome hardship and to serve others.
I too have an adopted son, so thank you for also taking that route, and thank Emily for those of us who are adoptive parents. It’s an important mission and I really appreciate that you’re doing it.
Chris. Thank you. Appreciate you having me on.
Mark. And I look forward to meeting you in person. Let’s follow up about that potential opportunity maybe this year or next year.
Chris. Let’s do it.
Mark. All right brother. Take care.
Chris. Take care.
Mark. All right folks. That was Chris Norton… Amazing individual. Please check out his book “The Seven Longest Yards,” and the documentary that’s coming out. Look for that. You can probably learn about all those details at his website chrisnorton.org.
And thank you for paying attention to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. I truly appreciate it. And we’ll continue to bring inspiring individuals like Chris into your world so that we can learn from them. People with an Unbeatable Mind. And until next time, train hard yourself, stay focused, take it one day at a time and be unbeatable.