Chris Norton was just six weeks into his freshman year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, when his life was changed forever. After he mistimed a play during a football game, he was left paralyzed from the neck down.
That fateful day was on October 16, 2010, and Chris was just 18 years old. Lying on the ground, he remembers what was going through his head at that time. He felt as though “someone had turned the power off to my body.”
The entire stadium fell silent, and Chris prayed.
“I’m trying to push [myself up] off the ground, but nothing’s working. I prayed to God to please let me just get up and walk off the field,” he said.
After the injury, he was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where it was discovered that he had fractured his C3-C4 vertebrae. This meant that he only had a three percent chance of movement below his neck – he would live the rest of his life as a paralyzed man.
“I wasn’t going to accept that,” he says. “I was going to be part of that three percent.”
So he did. Chris was able to walk during two momentous occasions in his life – his graduation in 2015 and when he got married to then-fiancée, Emily Summers, in 2018.
Together, the couple is still as supportive of each other as they were during day one. And this partnership was strengthened even more as they began to raise their five daughters.
“They just bring so much energy to our lives — there’s never a dull moment,” Chris, 27, says. “We’ve been out in public, and people will just stop us and ask us, ‘Are these your kids? Please tell me these aren’t your kids.”
Whittley, who is now 20 years old, is the first of 17 children that the couple has fostered. Her connection with the Nortons goes way back to when Emily was still in high school, when she mentored Whittley. In December, the couple officially adopted her.
Chris and Emily have four younger daughters – Ava, 10, Liliana, 8, Isabella, 6, and Ariana, 3. The girls are biological sisters whom the Nortons adopted in February.
“We were able to grow our family this year, which was really special, and make it just official that they are our daughters forever,” Emily says. “It’s been an absolute joy to be able to be there for these kids, through hard times, through good times.”
“We went into it thinking that we would be the blessing to these kids, but they’re the blessing to us,” Chris adds.
Their daughters have not only brought them so much joy, but they have also played a role in the couple’s mission of giving back to the community.
In June, the Chris Norton Foundation – which Chris founded in 2012 – organized a wheelchair camp for 25 children who have spinal injuries and their families. Their four girls came along as counselors in training.
Chris admits that while being a father feels so fulfilling, there are some aspects of parenthood that can be hard for him given his situation.
“There were things about being a dad that I really wanted to do. I always wanted to be the dad that can throw my kids around in the pool or play catch. I just focus on what I can do as a dad. … I just cannot let my physical paralysis paralyze my mindset,” he said.
Chris is truly unstoppable – he is ticking off another item on his bucket list as he just became a published author! In a new book titled The Seven Longest Yards, the husband and wife share the highs and lows of their incredible journey, from Chris’ spinal injury that left him paralyzed to married life with five adopted daughters.
“Everyone saw our highlight-reel moments. We want to show people how we got there,” Chris tells PEOPLE.
If there is anything that Chris wanted readers to takeaway from his story, it is this:
“We want other people to find the courage in themselves, through our example, to keep pushing the limits and leaning on each other.”
Watch the video below to learn more about this amazing man who in spite being paralyzed it did not stop him from living fully.