7 years after a football accident paralyzed him, she helped him walk down the aisle

Her floor-length veil blowing gently in the wind, the young bride glances at her beloved, dressed in a navy, three-pi...

Posted: Apr 28, 2018 9:47 AM
Updated: Apr 28, 2018 9:47 AM

Her floor-length veil blowing gently in the wind, the young bride glances at her beloved, dressed in a navy, three-piece suit, on this, their wedding day.

Then, she crouches over his wheelchair, slips her arms under his armpits and heaves.

Together, they stand in their first moment as husband and wife and embrace in a kiss. Then, she braces him from the side as he takes one wobbly step at a time, the unsteady -- and extraordinary -- effort captured in video of the ceremony in Jupiter, Florida. Some steps are harder than others as he swings his leg out front, focusing on each and every step.

Chris Norton, 26, was told nearly a decade ago that he might never walk again. Alone in his motionless body, he feared he'd never find love.

Then came Emily Summers.

After working for years to rebuild Chris' strength, the couple on April 21 managed what even experts once thought impossible: They walked seven yards together -- their arms intertwined as Emily bore much of Chris' weight -- down the aisle. The moment, first reported by People, was not just a personal triumph but also the latest chapter in a young couple's mission to help and inspire others.

"When I walked with Emily at the wedding, it was such a special moment to share with her and to know that we did this together," Chris told CNN. "It wasn't just me, or her, but we did this together, and how powerful love can be and how far love can carry you in life and to know that we'll have each other going forth until we pass."

'Not part of the plan'

Chris was an 18-year-old freshman when his life changed in an instant, just six weeks into college.

He was playing football for Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. On October 16, 2010, it was the third quarter in a game against Central College, and Chris was about to make a play he'd made many times before.

"I was running down to make a tackle at kickoff after we scored a touchdown, and I made a diving tackle at his legs," Chris recalled. "I mistimed my jump just by a split second.

"Instead of getting my head in front of the legs of the ball carrier, my head collided right with his legs, and instantly, I lost all movement and feeling from my neck down."

Chris lay in the grass, face down. He couldn't push up. He didn't know why.

"'Chris, you have to get up," he told himself, embarrassed that the game would stop.

Trainers ran onto the field. A helicopter arrived. Chris knew something was very wrong.

"I just closed my eyes and started praying and trying to block out what was happening around me," he said. "I did not want to accept what was unfolding."

At the hospital, Chris learned he'd suffered a spinal cord injury, fracturing his C3-C4 vertebrae. He needed surgery.

"I asked a surgeon, 'Will I walk again?' And he said, 'Chris, I don't know.'"

"At that point, I just lost it," Chris said. "I was completely scared for my future because up until this point, as an 18-year-old, my life went according to plan. Everything was working out for me. For me, this was not part of the plan."

'Take care of today'

Each day in the hospital was like a fight, Chris said. Now a quadriplegic, he had lost much of the sensation below his neck.

Chris had suffered an incomplete spinal injury, and over time, some feeling returned to his body. Eventually, he'd be able to feel touch -- but not temperature, pain or texture -- he said.

At first, though, Chris couldn't scratch his face. He couldn't bathe. He couldn't feed himself.

"I know everyone really just focuses on the walking part, but there was so much more that I couldn't do," he said.

But instead of focusing on what he couldn't do, Chris tried to concentrate on tiny successes, like when he started feeding himself, or the day he first drove a motorized wheelchair.

"It's about sending the correct signal through my muscles to communicate," he explained. "The signal is getting messed up because of my injury. In training, they're trying to work me through walking patterns, working through my hands and arms and putting me through the motions I'm used to doing so I can reconnect and get those signals strengthened and controlled."

A major success came when he returned to school in August 2011.

"I just focus on that day," he said, referring to every day. "'What can I do today to get just a little bit better?' and that's been my motto. I just knew the future would take care of itself when I take care of today."

'She saw me for who I was'

Three years after his accident, Chris met Emily on a dating app. She was in college at Iowa State University, about three hours away.

"I was nervous because I didn't know if I would find love," Chris admitted. "I didn't know if that was on the realm of that actually happening, for me to find my true love."

The connection was instant.

"For someone to look past my injury and my physical challenges, and instantly I knew, Emily, she didn't see that -- she saw me for who I was, and I instantly had a connection with her."

Emily felt a similar vibe.

"I just remember feeling a sense of peace that I knew that if I had Chris, that no matter what I went through in life, that I was going to be OK," Emily Norton, formerly Summers, told CNN recently. "I could never have imagined this is where we would be right now, thinking back to when we first started dating, that this was the plan that God had for us."

There was a lot that attracted Emily to Chris. He wanted to make a difference in other peoples' lives, and so did she. He loved God, and so did she.

By then, Chris had started the Chris Norton Foundation, a nonprofit "dedicated to helping people with spinal cord and neuromuscular disabilities live their best lives," according to his website. And, he was working as a motivational speaker.

Emily got involved in Chris' recovery just a few weeks later. She went with him to physical therapy and learned how to help him stretch, exercise and practice walking.

"Now, she can walk me better than any physical therapist I've ever worked with," Chris said with a smile. "She just knows how to get me around, move me around."

Chris, who was still enrolled at Luther College, moved to Michigan so he could train at Barwis Methods, a program known for helping patients regain independence after a serious injury.

He had a big goal: to walk across the stage at his college graduation.

Chris trained four or five hours a day. Emily, now a college grad, moved to Michigan, too, to support him.

The night before his graduation in May 2015, Chris asked Emily to marry him. She said yes.

The next day, she hoisted him up out of his wheelchair and he made that walk. Chris' arms shook quickly as Emily positioned him. She stood in front of him, just like a physical therapist, her body weight supporting him as he made tiny, unbalanced steps. The crowd roared as the pair slowly crossed the stage.

"I just always knew that I wanted to marry Emily," Chris said. "It was even more special that she was the one that walked me across the stage of my college graduation as my fianc-e, not just my girlfriend, but someone that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

With one walk behind them, the couple hatched their next challenge: walking together down the aisle at their wedding.

'The best thing that we've ever done'

To focus on Chris' training and to enjoy more accessibility and sunshine, Chris and Emily moved to Florida in May 2016. Not long after, a call for help came that they couldn't ignore.

A student Emily had mentored in high school, Whittley, was now 17 and faced aging out of a group home for foster children. She had nowhere to go.

Emily and Chris, then just 22 and 23 years old, became Whittley's foster parents for a year. They loved it and decided to foster more children. Soon, the couple -- in the throes of wedding planning and Chris' therapy -- took in a 3-year-old and a 2-month-old.

"It's slowly grown ... and now we have five kids, 8 and under," Emily said. "It is the best thing that we've ever done.

"Life has never been easier, and I know that's crazy, but when you find something that you love so much, it just doesn't seem like work, and it brings us so much joy, and it's incredible to see the power of love."

Chris' motivational speaking supports the family, and he and Emily are also working on a book. Like any couple, they do their best to share the workload, but their situation is not typical.

Chris handles the finances, including paying the mortgage and bills, which he can do easily without moving his body. He has someone come clean the house, do laundry and wash dishes. "I wouldn't want all that to be put on Emily," he said.

"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."

Some outsiders have admitted they don't quite get Chris and Emily's relationship.

"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 said. "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."

To Chris, Emily "is just Wonder Woman."

"We can travel all over the place, and she can get me in these awkward cars and down or up stairs," he said. "She doesn't complain. She just loves it and just has so much joy. I'm just in so much awe of her every single day."

'We all want to rise again'

After Chris' graduation walk, the couple's story gained national attention, and training for their wedding walk became less a personal duty than a mission to help others find hope, they said.

"I don't have to walk to be happy," Chris said. "It's not me trying to get back my independence. It's about me not being defined by my physical ability, being defined by a wheelchair -- I'm so much more than that.

"We need to spread more hope in the world, and we need to be a light in the world," he said. "We feel that it's our calling from God and it's our purpose, and it just brings me to life and it just energizes me."

A documentary by Fotolanthropy, which describes itself as a "nonprofit organization that celebrates stories of hope of those who have defied great odds," follows the couple's journey to the altar. Called "7 Yards: The Chris Norton Story," crowd-funding has raised almost half the $250,000 goal to cover production costs.

"What I'm passionate about is to share the experiences from the worst day of my life of suffering a spinal cord injury seven years ago to walking seven yards with my bride, the greatest day of my life," Chris said. "I think that we all want to come back, we all want to rise again, and I'm just really excited to be able to share that."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 117450

Reported Deaths: 3580
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion21403766
Lake10618323
Elkhart6667111
St. Joseph6576110
Allen6292203
Hamilton4909109
Vanderburgh371931
Hendricks2747123
Monroe262736
Tippecanoe252313
Johnson2338124
Clark223657
Porter217647
Delaware198562
Cass19549
Vigo184327
Madison168975
LaPorte147441
Floyd138963
Warrick134440
Howard131863
Kosciusko124817
Bartholomew117957
Marshall101224
Dubois99119
Boone98646
Grant93334
Hancock93243
Noble92532
Henry80926
Jackson7689
Wayne76814
Morgan72938
Daviess67728
Shelby67729
Dearborn66528
LaGrange63911
Clinton60914
Harrison58724
Putnam58112
Gibson5305
Knox5259
Lawrence51529
Montgomery51121
DeKalb48711
White48614
Decatur45839
Miami4383
Greene42735
Fayette42313
Jasper3992
Steuben3877
Scott38111
Posey3400
Sullivan33812
Jennings31612
Franklin31125
Ripley3038
Clay3025
Orange28824
Whitley2796
Carroll27713
Adams2743
Wabash2718
Washington2691
Starke2677
Wells2654
Spencer2593
Jefferson2483
Huntington2453
Fulton2412
Tipton22822
Perry22113
Randolph2207
Jay1880
Newton17311
Owen1711
Martin1680
Pike1621
Rush1574
Vermillion1300
Fountain1282
Blackford1203
Pulaski1131
Crawford1080
Brown1043
Parke1032
Benton870
Ohio797
Union790
Switzerland690
Warren401
Unassigned0226

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 150809

Reported Deaths: 4741
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin26961607
Cuyahoga17490656
Hamilton13191315
Montgomery7883163
Lucas7322364
Butler6040111
Summit5332252
Marion310347
Warren309649
Mahoning3073281
Stark2883175
Pickaway267844
Lorain231786
Delaware228120
Fairfield211853
Licking193663
Columbiana193280
Wood190272
Trumbull1896132
Clark181040
Clermont173123
Lake163851
Medina147539
Greene146533
Miami145451
Allen144169
Portage115566
Mercer113218
Erie94647
Tuscarawas93620
Wayne93668
Richland90319
Ross89024
Madison83012
Darke80442
Geauga72349
Belmont72227
Hancock71210
Athens7072
Ashtabula65948
Lawrence65922
Shelby64910
Auglaize6089
Putnam60823
Sandusky57720
Huron5517
Union5452
Scioto5117
Seneca48514
Ottawa46930
Preble44015
Muskingum4213
Holmes3909
Jefferson3364
Defiance32511
Henry31814
Logan3123
Champaign3083
Clinton29913
Perry2989
Brown2902
Knox28615
Jackson2636
Morrow2612
Washington26123
Hardin25613
Fulton2461
Crawford2446
Ashland2424
Coshocton23411
Fayette2326
Highland2303
Williams2133
Wyandot21312
Pike2000
Gallia19113
Meigs17610
Guernsey1708
Hocking1669
Carroll1527
Adams1354
Van Wert1233
Monroe11018
Paulding1100
Harrison643
Morgan490
Vinton473
Noble330
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Scattered Clouds
55° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 55°
Angola
Broken Clouds
54° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 54°
Huntington
Overcast
54° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 54°
Decatur
Overcast
55° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 55°
Van Wert
Overcast
55° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 55°
Rain moves in for Monday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events