Chris Norton was 18 years old when a single, mistimed play on the football field left him paralyzed from the neck down.
“It was surreal. It was like it wasn’t my life,” the former college football player told CBS News. “I had this perfect plan in my head. I was going to be this All-American football player, get a business degree and try to make enough money to get a lake house.”
Then, Norton’s helmet collided directly with a sprinting ball carrier’s legs, and just like that, his path in life changed forever.
“It felt as if someone just turned off the power to my body,” Norton recalls. “I’m telling myself, ‘Chris, get up. Push off the ground.’ But no matter how hard I try to push, nothing was working… So I’m airlifted out and I’m given a 3 percent chance of ever getting anything back below my neck — not just a 3 percent chance to walk, but a 3 percent chance to move anything, to scratch an itch on my face, to feed myself.”
Faced with nearly impossible odds, however, Norton swore he wouldn’t be part of the 97 percent. He also resolved not to let his accident keep him from finding love.
In 2013, after a few failed relationships, Chris set up an online dating profile and matched with a student at Iowa State University named Emily Summers.
“I’ll never forget meeting her in person for the first time,” he tells CBS News. “Seeing her cross the street, I was just in awe right away. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Is that girl actually walking towards me?'”
The two immediately bonded over their strong Christian faith and their mutual love for helping others. But for Emily, the way Chris handled his paralysis played a large part in the attraction, too.
“I was so drawn to the fact that he didn’t just give up and he didn’t just feel sorry for himself,” she tells CBS News. “But he instead said, ‘I’m going to use this. I’m going to do more than what I ever thought was possible. I’m going to get through this and I’m going to help people along the way.'”
Emily was there to support him in May 2015, when after months of grueling training, Chris rose out of his wheelchair and walked across his college graduation stage to receive his diploma. The reaction across social media was swift and overwhelming.
“After the graduation walk, when it reached so many people, we had so many messages from people who are suicidal, who have struggled with spinal cord injuries and different things, who have just no hope at all,” Emily recalls. “This story with the graduation walk gave people hope.”
That made the couple think: If Chris could inspire millions of people by walking just a few feet across his graduation stage, maybe he could do it even bigger and better at his next important milestone. And this spring, that opportunity presented itself with the couple’s wedding.
Seven years after his injury, Chris began a grueling training regiment, so that when the day came, he could walk seven yards down the aisle with his wife — one yard for each year he’d been in a wheelchair. At the marker for each of those yards, the couple had a single word printed along the aisle runner from their favorite, serendipitously seven-word Bible verse: “Above all else, love each other deeply.”
Seeing those words, and seemingly experiencing them in real time, helped Chris overcome a physical challenge far greater than anything he’d ever undertaken.
“About a year ago, we really committed to the fact that we were going to walk side-by-side, not with her in front of me,” Chris tells CBS News. “When she’s in front of me, she can support me a lot more. So, her moving to my hip — just a slight adjustment — is actually a huge change for me. And to be physically strong enough just to have her there to take steps was a big commitment. The first time I tried to take a step, I couldn’t even do it. I was so frustrated. I was so mad. But thankfully, I had a year to really work on it. And thankfully, those seven yards went really well.”
On April 21, in front of their family, their friends and the five foster children they’re now raising in their Florida home, Chris and Emily walked arm-in-arm down the aisle at their wedding. Now, they hope that the miraculous sight, reached with love and determination, will give others hope, too.
“I hope [people] take away that whatever they’re going through, they can get through it, that it’s possible,” Chris says. “I think so many times we want to just give up. And to see me rise out of my chair and to do it with the love of my life, us sticking together, that love is real and possible, and that overcoming challenges is a real opportunity, I hope people see that and they have hope.”