This young Iowa native had everything going for him. He was a promising football player that played for his college team until he suffered an accident that left him paralyzed. After a dark and difficult period, Chris Norton decided to defeat the odds and find it within himself to stand, whatever the cost.
His strength of character shone through, seeing him move on to bigger and better things. Now 27 years of age, he found purpose in helping others and changing their lives for the better. At Popular Everything, we’re bringing you the details about his extraordinary journey.
The Moment That Would Change His Life Forever
It was 2010, and Chris was an 18-year-old American football defensive back who played for the Luther College Norse. During a football game against Central College in Decorah, Iowa, Chris fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae in the 3rd quarter of play, from which he would never make a full recovery.
A promising footballer that played for his college team, his neck injury made him wheelchair-bound. He was told by doctors that he had a 3% chance of ever regaining movement below his neck and that his career in professional football was over. His life had turned upside-down, and he had to find it in himself to accept the challenges of his future.
No One Knew What Price He’d Have to Pay
The fracture to Chris’s vertebrae occurred upon impact as his head was hit by the knee of a player, and he collapsed motionless to the ground. As soon as possible, an ambulance arrived on the scene to take him to an airlifting facility. He needed immediate and urgent medical attention.
That evening, they managed to rush him into surgery. Doctors had him surgery for three whole hours. But they weren’t too optimistic – they told him that there was only a three percent chance he would ever regain any movement below his neck, ever in his life.
The Shock He Didn’t Expect
Upon waking up the next morning, he found himself unable to move his neck. He required a tube in order to breathe properly. He found he wasn’t able to speak. However, he did manage to shrug one shoulder a small amount, surprising the Doctors.
After five days in the Intensive Care Unit, he was moved to a rehab center for daily physical therapy. He would need to be consistent with it, and attend it for four months straight. His progress was so good that he regained movement in his hands, allowing him to use an electric wheelchair and operate power steering. Things were looking up!
Support That Allowed Him to Reach His Reach His Goals
Chris’s recovery was going amazingly well, seeing improvements in mobility in his upper body. But below the waist, he wasn’t seeing any change. He needed to be focused and dedicated to his recovery, and it wasn’t going to be a quick process.
Luckily, he had the loving support of his family around him. After moving back to Bondurant, Iowa in May 2011, he would spend the next few years building his strength up to the point that he could use a less assisted wheelchair. His sister, Alex, was a nurse and moved close by to help him. It wasn’t until 2017 that he achieved enough power in his arms and torso to use one.
Looking for His “Dream Girl”
Chris knew he wanted a committed relationship. “I wanted to be a dad and have a wife,” he admits. “But I didn’t want to burden somebody with everything I needed.” After a series of unsuccessful dates, Chris met Emily, who turned out to be the love of his life.
“I was waiting for that girl who made me feel alive and someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” he said. “And then here comes Emily. I knew she was on the one.” She was 25 years old, hard-working, with a heart of gold. And she felt drawn to Chris, too. Chris had found his life partner who would in no time join him in becoming parents to five adopted children, but we’ll cover that later in the story!
Where There’s a Will There’s a Way
Chris had many obstacles in his way, but clear determination to achieve one goal. He wanted to be able to walk across the stage of his college for his graduation, where he would be given his diploma. “I set that goal and I knew I had to work as hard as I could to make it happen,” he explains.
He even moved to Michigan to achieve his goal. There, physical therapist Mike Barwis would spend hours each day training with Chris, and he was one of the best trainers around. It was during this period that he met Emily.
“She pushed me to keep going for more,” he explains.
He’s Got Something He Wants to Ask You
The big day was fast-approaching where he would prove to himself he could walk up the stage of his graduation and claim his diploma in Business Management. However, he had another event planned for the night before his big day.
He surprised Emily by proposing to her, keen to start married life together. After all, she had been there all the years he was even training for his upcoming ceremony. “She pushed me to keep going for more,” he tells, with her acting as the biggest motivator of all. In an emotional moment that was caught on camera by family, she choked back the tears and said yes!
Emily’s Interest in Fostering
Before tieing the knot, the couple had already achieved quite a milestone in their relationship. They were living together in Florida and wanted to foster children without families or homes. Emily was already well aware of the fact that she loved children and wanted to help kids in need.
It started when she was a student at Muscatine High School and part of the Police Mentor Program that paired high school students with elementary students that need some help and guidance. She was paired with a young girl from a different school by the name of Whittley, who she would later come to adopt as her own daughter.
Finding It Hard to Turn a Blind Eye
“I came from such a great family who was always supportive, who was always there so, I didn’t really understand there were kids in our community who don’t have that family or that support,” Emily explained.
She continues: “I just knew that I wanted to do everything in my power to help kids who were struggling,” she revealed, clarifying that she wanted to reach out to “kids who were in these situations, who were being abused, neglected, who didn’t know that they were really loved and special.”
Climbing a Mountain
The morning after Chris and Emily became engaged, it was the moment of truth – the graduation ceremony. With Emily by his side, he managed to walk the entire length of the stage and receive his diploma. It was an incredibly proud and emotional moment for both of them and Chris’s family.
His walk was filmed and uploaded online, garnering a huge amount of attention and eventually going viral. The video ended up receiving over 300 million views on Youtube, touching the hearts of people all over the world. Chris and Emily were even appearing on talk shows and giving magazine interviews about the journey.
A New Resolution
“The walk wouldn’t have been possible without Emily, literally and figuratively,” he admitted. Emily was just as gushing about him: “He is the best person I’ve ever met,” she asserted, adding, “he’s such a hard-working, determined person and makes me better and inspires me to do more in my life as well.”
With their impending wedding date, Chris had made another resolution. He wanted to be able to walk down the aisle when he married the love of his life. He made it his next goal to be able to walk down the aisle on his wedding day. He certainly has a lot of determination!
Chris Isn’t Doing It for Himself Anymore
Fostering became a major turn in their lives, and they went on to look after several children. It also became more of a motivation for Chris to become fitter and to train harder. He loved his role as a dad and needed to be the best that he could not just for his fiance, but the children in his life. But it wasn’t easy – 7 months before the wedding prospects didn’t look good.
“Chris couldn’t take one step. His foot would get tangled up. He just got mad and said, ‘Just put me in bed.'” Emily knows that while she has found her calling, “Fostering is not for everyone.” But she does think more should be done for children from challenging homes, where its foster, donating or mentoring. “There’s always something that we all can do to support kids in foster care or support their families, she asserts.
She’s Down for the Gown
With the wedding fast-approaching, many details needed to come together. They weren’t planning on sneaking off for a private affair. They wanted to proudly celebrate their miraculous love story and serve as inspiration for others. Chris and Emily even appeared on the season finale of Say Yes to the Dress.
It was a success as she found the wedding dress of her dreams. She opted for a sweetheart neckline and a form-fitting skirt. She wanted her dress to be sleeveless and chose a dress that had a silk waist-cinching bow.
The Pleasures of Wedding Planning
“CAKE TASTING IS THE BEST!!!” shouted Chris on Instagram in his caption to the photo below. He gave us a sneak peek into the fun they had while planning for their nuptials. He also revealed where they having their custom wedding cake designed, admitting that it really was just “delicious.”
These moments where they enjoyed the experience of being engaged made the months of training to walk easier. Either way, Chris was going to marry the love of his life and wanted they wanted in the future aligned.
They Tied the Knot!
Finally, the big day was here. In front of all their friends and family, Chris walked down the aisle, aided by his bride. His hard work had paid off, but he wanted to be clear that all the time and effort he spent training wasn’t simply about the “physical act of walking.”
It never was. “It is about not letting your challenges and setbacks keep you down,” he wrote. “It’s about how we are all stronger with love, and it is about trusting in [fate] even when you feel hopeless.” The video of him walking down the aisle also went viral online, drawing in over two million views. Little did they know at this point that they would garner even more public attention when they adopted five girls, four of whom were biological sisters.
A Tender Moment
With all the challenges thrown at Chris and Emily, they had met each other, fallen in love, and were ready for the next chapter of their lives. Their five foster children, all under the age of eight, were also present and cheering them on from the side. Once they had walked down the aisle together, Chris took a seat and Emily joined him.
Chris had many lovely things to say about his blushing bride: “What I love about Emily is that she has the biggest heart in the world,” he gushed. “She has so much compassion and empathy.” Once the ceremony was finished, they were met with a standing ovation by their guests. This was only the start of their journey.
A New Family Member
The joy that fostering children brought to their lives made them want to take an even bigger step – adoption. The first child they adopted was Whittley, then 20 years of age, who Emily had met in her Police Mentor Program at High school. She’s is only six years younger than Chris and five years younger than Emily.
Chris recalls a proud moment for him and Whittley when he came to pick her up from school one day earlier than usual. She was sick, and the nurse told her that high schoolers aren’t allowed to sign out other students. She simply replied “Oh, no. That’s my dad.”
Blended and Beautiful
They wanted a bigger family. They ended up adopting four biological sisters in February of 2019, all under the age of 11. There was Ava, the oldest of her sisters at 10 years old, Liliana, 8, Isabella, 6, and the youngest one Ariana, was only three. They had gone from a recently married couple of two to a family of seven in just a few weeks.
In the photo above, they are all together and pledging themselves to each other in the courthouse. For the couple, adopting their daughters is part of their life mission to give back to those less fortunate.
Making It Official
The happy couple is well aware of their fortunate position. “We were able to grow our family this year, which was really special, and make it just official that they are our daughters forever,” belts Emily. She continues: “It’s been an absolute joy to be able to be there for these kids, through hard times, through good times.”
But Chris and Emily are the ones that feel especially lucky. Emily explains that “We went into [fostering and adoption] thinking that we would be the blessing to these kids, but they’re the blessing to us.” The Nortons understand that they’re fortunate position has allowed them to care for and grow their tightknit family.
Chris Found the Power to Stand
Today, Chris works as a full-time motivational speaker. He uses his difficult experiences to inspire others with the understanding that our circumstances don’t define us. “We all get knocked down,” he asserts, looking to shift the focus away from his story and relate it to the struggles in other people’s lives.
He speaks about how inner strength is what prevails, and not to get caught up in the things we can’t control. “it’s about attitude, and the ability to shape yourself in the face of adversity,” he reiterates. Chris has come to understand that “perseverance isn’t about the physical act of standing.”
Chris Doesn’t Let His Physical Paralysis Paralyze His Mindset
Chris does admit that some parts of parenthood come especially challenging to him, and he does deal with difficulties as a father. “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,” he reveals.
But it’s all more motivation for Chris to keep going, and keep working on being a better version of himself. He continues to train and take his body and health seriously, as now he’s part of something bigger than just himself. “I just focus on what I can do as a dad… I just cannot let my physical paralysis paralyze my mindset.”
Going the Extra Mile
Chris even started the Chris Norton Foundation; a nonprofit organization that is “dedicated to helping people with spinal cord and neuromuscular disabilities live their best lives.” He wants to provide financial aid to others with similar struggles as he believes “no one should have to worry about money when they’re working towards a better life.”
Chris and Emily have even written a book about their story. Called The Seven Longest Yards, they talk about their unlikely love story and the unbelievable odds they overcame through their faith and steely determination to get to a better place.
Raising Awareness: There Are Always Children Who Need to Be Seen
The inspirational couple has now become internet famous to some degree since videos of Chris walking at graduation and walking seven yards for his wedding day went viral on the internet. They have even appeared on big mainstream media outlets such as Good Morning America and People TV. The young couple hopes to raise awareness for the importance of fostering and adoption, encouraging others who are able and willing to consider how they can change young lives.
Despite finding it hard to say goodbye to children who have been in her custody, Emily still has strong reasons for continually putting herself in that position: “Saying goodbye to kids you love like your own is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do… But I’m not okay living my life protecting myself from being hurt.”
Chris’s Wonder Woman
Chris describes Emily as “just Wonder Woman.” While he supports the family financially, Emily handles more of the day to day practicalities, especially with the kids. “With the kids, I know that there wasn’t a lot I could do with helping them put a shirt on,” he said. “I can be more of a cheerleader and helping them grow as a person rather than being physically active.”
“We do sometimes get that that people think I’m his sister or something, but honestly, just because we are so close and just with everything, me helping him feels like nothing. It’s just what you do when you love somebody,” Emily explains. “Chris helps me as much as I help him, not necessarily in a physical way but in emotional ways. That’s the big part for me,” she reveals.
You Make Life Exciting
Chris and Emily celebrated their first wedding anniversary in April of 2019, which they commemorated by feeding each other some breakfast cake. Chris addressed a touching message to his wife, acknowledging how far they’ve come in a year by acquiring five children! “It’s been a roller coaster ride and right when I don’t think it can get any crazier something happens or you get another wild idea,” he gushes.
Chris continues: “You truly make my life so exciting and more meaningful than I could have ever imagined. I knew marrying you we would never live an ‘ordinary’ life and you have delivered on that and some.” His words of advice for his followers for finding the right one are to “find someone who pushes and challenges you out of your comfort zone to be the best version of yourself.”
Where Do They Get Their Motivation?
After having fostered over 17 children before adopting the five girls they have today, they have a thing or two to say about why they see it as so important. “35% of all kids in foster care are separated from their siblings,” Emily explains. “Being able to keep these 4 sisters together is one of the greatest joys of my life.”
But she and Chris were able to see the bigger picture: “I will never forget the moment we got the call about these girls. We had many fears and lots of reasons we could’ve said no. The reality of what would’ve happened to these girls if we said no completely breaks my heart. More than likely they would’ve been separated from each other.”
Meeting The Siblings
Driven by their desire to help the less fortunate, Chris and Emma successfully adopted all four siblings. Emma did admit that “It’s very rare that a foster family will take four all at once.” Still, when they met the girls and heard their backstories, they knew they “had to keep them together.” They felt that it was “God’s plan.”
The girls first arrived on their doorsteps on December 26th, a few months before their wedding. They were surprised that the only belongings they brought were the clothes on their backs, plus one Christmas present each. Luckily, the couple welcomed them with open arms and stacks of gifts.
The Natural Born Leader
Prior to meeting the girls, Chris and Emma realized that they had spent over 1,000 days in foster care. They understood this would have been unsettling and traumatic for them, and prepared for the worst. Still, rather than being “emotional messes,” each child arrived full of excitement and each had a distinctive personality of their own.
The eldest was Ava, and despite being ten at the time, she was the mother figure. After landing at the Nortons, the couple watched her thrive in other areas, like gymnastics and singing. She was also pretty active and a natural-born leader, so Ava was great at organizing the clan.
The Budding Actress
When the Norton’s met Liliana, she was just eight years old, and the second eldest sibling. Chris and Emma couldn’t help but notice she was the “future actress of the group.” She was pretty outgoing, confident and always the center of attention. She also loved leading the family in church prayers.
Aside from being the center of attention, Liliana also had a heart of gold. She was pretty charitable, and she had a lot of love to give for her family. She was also generous too. Emma recalled how she once used her “chore money to buy her teacher flowers and candy.”
As the third sibling of the clan, at six years old, Isabella was bursting with energy. Once she settled into life with the Nortons, she began to channel this energy and thrived in sports and athletics. She was also competitive and would be the first to dare Chris, Emma and the other children to a race.
In truth, Isabella could often be found with a few bruises and scrapes on her body from her latest ambitious adventures. Still, there was no denying that she’s fast. Chris even commented on how “She can outrun everybody”. Well, “sometimes.” But we’re sure she only got better with time.
The Future Nurse
While these girls were all related, it was clear from the offset that they each had their own characteristics. Ariana was the youngest sibling and was just three years old at the time of the adoption. Still, she was full of love and had a big personality. Emma gushed how she’s “a very sweet, loving girl.”
They could already see that Ariana was the budding nurse of the group. She was caring and always ready to help. Emma recalled how one day she had a sore muscle and Ariana instinctively went to her room and brought out her doctor’s kit. She then showered Emma’s sore muscle with kisses and we’re sure she was a great distraction for the pain.
The story of how the couple opened their home to Whittley is a little different. Emma first became a mentor to Whittley in high school and took to her immediately. Whittley was four years her junior and had behavioral issues. Emma had watched Whittley bounce from foster house to foster house over the years.
One fateful day, Emma received the phone call she had been dreading. Whittley whispered on the other end of the receiver, “It’s really bad this time. I’m in big trouble. My sister kicked me out. The cops are involved. They’re putting me in a group home. They might even send me to . . . to . . . to juvie!” Emma was shocked and faced with an epic dilemma.
Making a Change
It was clear that Whittley had behavioral issues. She often got in trouble and seemed to be trapped in a cycle. But Emma couldn’t see her being trapped in the foster care system for much longer. She and Chris believed they could be the ones to help turn her life around and end this cycle.
The couple was newly engaged and four years older than Whittley. Still, they eventually agreed to take her into their home and enrolled her into a local high school. They had just had one deal-breaker. Whittley had to stay in school. They also made it clear that if she slipped into her old ways, there would be consequences. So they worked hard to help her change her ways.
The girls certainly know how lucky they are to have found such loving, supportive parents. On the day they were officially adopted, Izzy, who was five years old, started crying and embraced Emily, refusing to let her go. Emily recalls how they “shared such a special moment.”
Emily explained why the second youngest was so overwhelmed by her emotions. “She told me she’s just so happy,” she revealed. “This week we got the honor and privilege to say yes to FOREVER,” asserted the new mother.
Don’t Ask Emily to Turn a Blind Eye
Emily’s strength of character is truly one of a kind. She has dedicated her life to helping children who are disadvantaged. She passionately explains that “There are kids out there right now who don’t know how special and loved they truly are… I’m not okay with the fact that right now as I type this. There are kids who don’t have a family. I’m not okay with kids trying to overcome the severe abuse and neglect that they’ve been through alone.”
“I’m not okay with kids feeling unwanted & unlovable,” she concludes, making her reader consider what help they can provide to children in need. “I would way rather have my adult heart be broken than for a child to not feel loved, cared for, and wanted.” Her willingness to put a child’s feeling of worth above her own happiness is inspiring.
Something Greater Than Yourself
People repeatedly told Emily that she could never be a foster parent because she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye. “No matter how much it hurts when you say goodbye, impacting a child’s life is always worth it! You may never know the impact you have.” Emily warns, before adding, “However, I can promise you one thing.”
“If you love or support a kid in foster care you have made a lasting impact… The impact you can make is greater than the loss you will experience. An impact that can change generations forever…” Emily is able to step back and look at the big picture of what she is trying to achieve.
Chris’s Wheelchair Summer Camp for Families
As well as raising the foster children and five adopted girls with Emily, Chris is also active in giving back to underprivileged children. He set up and attended the first Chris Norton Foundation Wheelchair Camp in the summer of 2019, a week-long event where children and their families “get out of their comfort zone” and try new activities they never thought they could.
Attendees got to play power soccer, enjoy horseback riding, show off their strength with a tractor pull, win bingo prizes, play laser tag, basketball, archery, and see a concert with Tony Melendez. His foundation made sure money was not a deal-breaker, and made sure it was free for all the families to attend.
Their First Big Outing
Chris and Emily Norton’s family traveled for an entire during the summer. On the itinerary, they had quite a few things planned. One of which was the wheelchair camp at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in south Minnesota. They also planned on celebrating Ava’s 10th birthday & Izzy’s 6th while away from home.
Being on the road also provided a good opportunity for them to visit family with their new brood. But they did have a journey to make to New York to launch and promote their book, The Seven Longest Yards. Emily said the goal for them was to “create memories to last a lifetime and try my hardest not to sweat the small stuff traveling with kids.”
Look How Far They’ve Come
Even though he had been training and going to physiotherapy for a while before the big day, Chris didn’t know that he would be able to walk on his wedding day. He admits that he “didn’t know how the steps would go,” and that he also didn’t want to rush the moment – it was his wedding after all!
He continues: “I just wanted to take my time and enjoy the moment too,” recognizing that the experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity. “Just being able to go from not being able to walk a step to smoothly walk seven yards.” Now today, with Emily and his new family by his side, Chris has gone above and beyond all expectations, including his own.
A Sneak Peek Into Their Future
Just like any other young couple, these two wanted to satisfy their curiosity about what they might look like as an elderly couple. With the face-aging app “FaceApp” going viral in the summer of 2019, it allowed users to realistically mature their appearance and possibly get a glimpse as to what life has in store for them.
“Woah I hope I get to this age in life!!” belts Chris, before throwing high praise at Emily’s beautiful appearance. His priorities are in check, however, as he continues: “But more importantly I hope I get to this stage of life and think: I gave it my all. I didn’t live in fear. I lived with passion & purpose. I gave my love. I said yes much more than I said no. I helped raise a great family. I made a dent in this world.”