Chris Norton was just six weeks into his freshman year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, when his life changed forever. After wasting time on a play during a soccer game, he was paralyzed from the neck down.
That fateful day was October 16, 2010, and Chris was only 18 years old. Lying on the ground, he remembers what was going through his head at that moment. He felt as if “someone had turned off the energy in my body”.
The entire stadium fell silent and Chris prayed.
“I’m trying to get up off the ground, but nothing works. I asked God to please let me 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 the 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.”
He did so. Chris was able to walk through two momentous moments in his life: his graduation in 2015 and when he married his then-fiancée, Emily Summers, in 2018.
Together, the couple remains as supportive as they were on day one. And this association was further strengthened when they began to raise their five daughters.
“They just bring so much energy to our lives, there’s never a dull moment,” says 27-year-old Chris. “We’ve been out in public, and people just stop us and ask, ‘Are these your children? Please tell me these are not your children.”
Whittley, now 20, is the first of 17 children the couple have fostered. His connection to the Nortons goes 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 youngest daughters: Ava, 10, Liliana, 8, Isabella, 6, and Ariana, 3. The girls are biological sisters the Nortons adopted in February.
“We were able to grow our family this year, which was really special, and make it official that they are our daughters forever,” says Emily. “It has been an absolute joy to be able to be there for these children, in difficult times, in good times.”
“We started out thinking we would be a blessing to these kids, but they are a blessing to us,” adds Chris.
His daughters have not only brought them so much joy, but have also played a part in the couple’s mission to give back to the community.
In June, the Chris Norton Foundation, which Chris founded in 2012, organized a wheelchair camp for 25 children with spinal injuries and their families. His four daughters came as counselors-in-training.
Chris admits that while being a father feels very rewarding, there are some aspects of fatherhood that can be difficult for him given his situation.
“There were things about being a father that he really wanted to do. He always wanted to be the father who can throw his children in the pool or play ball. I just focus on what I can do as a parent. … I just can’t let my physical paralysis paralyze my mentality,” he said.
Chris is truly unstoppable: he’s checking off another item on his wish list since he just became a published author! In a new book called The Seven Longest Yards, the husband and wife share the ups and downs of his incredible journey, from Chris’ spinal injury that left him paralyzed to married life with five adopted daughters.
“Everyone saw our highlights. We want to show people how we got there,” Chris tells PEOPLE.
If there’s one thing Chris wanted readers to take away from his story, it’s this:
“We want other people to find the courage in themselves, through our example, to keep pushing boundaries and supporting each other.”
Watch the video below to learn more about this incredible man who, despite being paralyzed, did not stop him from living fully.