A little over a month ago, our former Episode 47 guest, Eric LeGrand posted the Facebook Live video featured below. I watched in amazement as Chris Norton worked with the team from Barwis Methods in Plymouth Michigan during one of his rehab sessions. Chris, who on the same day as Eric LeGrand (October 16, 2010), was also severely injured while making a tackle on a kickoff for Luther College in Iowa. Chris fractured his C3-C4 vertebrae and was told he had a 3% chance of ever regaining movement below the neck. Chris has defied the odds every step of the way. His determination is apparent when watching each rep being accomplished in this video. The amazing support system around him, led by his fiancée Emily, is also a driving force in Chris's recovery. Since Chris’ injury he has also set up the SCI CAN Foundation, which raises funds to address equipment and other needs at hospitals and rehabilitation centers for patients that weren’t as fortunate as he was. I immediately sent Chris an email to get him on the podcast after watching this video and highly recommend you watch it before reading the rest this post.
Chris and I started off the episode by talking about his football career leading up to his spinal cord injury. Chris seems like he played the game a lot like I did and prided himself on being a tough player who was not afraid to throw his body around and make contact. Chris then took me through the moments that led up to the injury. At the time, Chris was a freshman trying to make a name for himself on special teams. The opposing player who returned the kickoff had a full-back like build to him. Being a freshman and somewhat undersized because of that, Chris went low to make the tackle. For anyone who has ever played football before, you hear the phrase "low man wins" at nauseam. The easiest way to tackle a player who outweighs you is to take them out by their legs (as long as they are not a defenseless receiver, but I digress). In trying to keep his head in front of the ball carrier, which is also constantly taught by coaches, he was kneed in the head and subsequently injured his spinal cord.
Initially he thought he just had a stinger and didn’t think much of it, but as time went on and his feeling and movement wasn’t coming back he began to realize the severity of his injury, especially when they called for a helicopter. Chris said he felt embarrassed when he was lying on the field unable to get up because he prided himself on not being hurt and playing through injuries (sounds like someone I know...). Believe it or not, while in the helicopter, Chris was able to remain calm, despite having extreme difficulty breathing. He focused on taking one breathe at a time to calm himself down. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors gave him 3 percent chance to regain movement below his neck. We talk about how that kind of grim news from doctors can affect people in their response to adversity. In the early stages of Chris' rehab, his therapy consisted of simply nodding his head yes and no. Eventually was able to shrug his left shoulder, clench his stomach and then move his feet and he preaches to all injured athletes and non-athletes that over time those little inches add up. This is a theme that comes up frequently from guests on the podcast.
I asked Chris about his rock bottom moment and he told me it was every time he tried to go to sleep because it's quiet and your thoughts easily creep in. Not to mention that he couldn't move or adjust anything, which left him with an intense feeling of claustrophobia. He combatted these nightly feelings by working as hard as he possibly could during the day so he would be exhausted by nightfall. Chris went on to tell me a story from when he was in the hospital and was telling one of his doctors about a new sensation he had in his foot. The doctor then went on to tell him that it was a, "phantom" feeling. He remembers this being the only time he ever saw his Dad cry. Right after “Dr. Phantom” gave this news, Chris's Dad told him to not let anyone tell him what he can or can't do. Chris was devastated, but not even a week later he wiggled the toe that was deemed a phantom feeling.
Naturally we talked about the loss of Chris' identity as an athlete and competitor and how he began to question the value he offered to the world. Early on Chris realized that he needed to disassociate his pre-injury abilities from his post-injury abilities if he was ever going to be happy. This was the first time any of my guests brought up this point and I love it. Unfortunately, you aren't always going to recover back to a level you were at pre-injury. If you are constantly chasing that bar you will never be happy and that mindset can lead to negative thoughts. Like Chris says, if you focus on getting a little better every single day and show gratitude towards those small achievements, you just might find yourself in better shape than you were before. Through his motivational speaking and the creation of his non-profit called the SCI CAN Foundation, Chris has come to learn that physical movement is not everything.
Throughout Chris' recovery it has been a requirement to be surrounded by positivity. In doing research for this interview, it became obvious very quickly that his fiancée, Emily was a major source of that positivity. Chris met Emily three years after his injury through a mutual friend and I asked him if he ever worried about finding a girl who appreciated him for who he was and could see past the wheelchair. Chris responded by saying "If you're going to focus in on the wheelchair other people will too" and that "being authentic and true to yourself and being motivated is attractive whether able-bodied or not." Emily was the one who found the Barwis Methods and their Neurological Reengineering Program. Chris credits this program and Emily for helping him achieve his goal of walking across the stage at his college graduation. (See video below, good luck not crying). His new goal is to walk Emily down the aisle at their wedding next year! Chris went on to talk about the atmosphere at Barwis Methods and how its important that your trainer, physical therapist or ATC wants you to succeed as much as you do.
We finish the interview by discussing kickoffs in football. Chris thinks it’s the biggest risk factor for spinal cord injury in the game. He likes the changes they are making to the game to improve player safety, but says he would not be opposed to getting rid of kickoffs completely. Despite what he has gone through, Chris still believe's his and Eric's injuries were freak accidents. Frederick Mueller's Article published in 2014 titled "ANNUAL SURVEY OF CATASTROPHIC FOOTBALL INJURIES 1977 - 2008" states that "The incidence of catastrophic injuries is very low on a 100,000-player exposure basis. For the approximately 1,800,000 participants in 2008 the rate of injuries with incomplete neurological recovery was 0.72 per 100,000 participants" (Mueller, 4). In this same article, the majority of the injuries resulted from the athletes attempting to make tackles. My intention is certainly not to scare athletes, parents or coaches by sharing stories like mine or Chris'. Both Chris and I believe there are risk factors for everything we do and we both appreciate the value of football has to offer. My hope is that you can learn from the lessons Chris has taught us and find inspiration through his journey.