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Publish date: Nov 14, 2011

Luther football player honored with courage award

By Brian Hendrickson

The Luther College football team has routinely looked to Chris Norton for inspiration while watching their teammate recover from a severe spinal cord injury suffered last fall to take increasingly coordinated steps down the Mayo Clinic’s hallways.

Chris Norton is rehabbing from a severe spinal cord injury suffered last fall.

Now they get to share his inspirational tale with the rest of the nation.

The Luther College sophomore was honored with the Courage in Sports award during CBS’ hour-long America’s Choice television special on Sunday, recognizing Norton’s recovery from a compressed spinal cord injury in October 2010 after which he was given a 3 percent chance of regaining movement below his neck. 

After stunning his physicians at the Mayo Clinic with his significant recovery, Norton returned to Luther this fall to take three classes, and he brought the Norse crowd to its feet when he stood at midfield for both the national anthem and coin toss during Luther’s home opener against William Penn.

“It’s unbelievable. It doesn’t seem real sometimes,” Chris said on CBS’ The Early Show on Saturday morning when he was announced as the recipient of an honor previously given to former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali and NFL running back Walter Payton. “When the doctors told me 3 percent chance, it didn’t faze me at all. It was in one ear and out the other. They could’ve given me any kind of percentage and I wouldn’t have believed it.”

A multiple letter-winner in football (teammates voted him Hardest Hitter), basketball and track at Bondurant-Farrar High School outside Des Moines, Iowa, Norton was seeing regular action on special teams as a Luther freshman when his head caught on the knee of an opposing ball carrier while defending a third-quarter kickoff, hyperextending his neck and compressing the spinal cord.

But despite the initial long odds of recovery, Norton and his family maintained their optimism and were rewarded with small but consistent victories. Chris regained some feeling in his left shoulder after his emergency surgery, could move his toes by Thanksgiving, and by the end of last summer was able to hold a standing position for lengthy periods. 

He now walks with assistance down the Mayo Clinic hallways, taking increasingly coordinated steps and leaving no doubt in the minds of family and friends that he will one day walk independently.

“He’s a remarkable young man,” said Ronald Reeves, a spinal cord rehabilitation physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “From the first time I met Chris, he very clearly had identified a set of goals that he wanted to achieve for himself and methodically went about doing what he needed to achieve those goals. Chris’ positivity and his ability to do that is pretty remarkable in comparison to what most people can do.”

Norton received the award in a fan vote on Facebook that also included: 

  • Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand, who suffered a spinal cord injury against Army last fall;
  • Andrew, Paul, Colter and Willy Phillips, standout athletes who lost their father in a plane crash last fall; 
  • Arthur Ray Jr., a Michigan State offensive tackle who battled four years of cancer before returning for his senior season; 
  • The Fennville (Mich.) High School basketball team, which rallied together after the midseason death of teammate Wes Leonard; and 
  • Kevin Pearce, a professional snowboarder who suffered a traumatic brain injury weeks before the 2010 Winter Olympics.