The following are some excerpts from an article written by Brian Hendrickson for "Champion," a magazine published by the NCAA quarterly. It is a reminder that the best coaches, the best programs, are teaching lessons that translate beyond the sport they play. I've often written about the importance of being "process-oriented" in our approach to competing. It was something that was driven home by the philosophy I observed Nick Saban teaching while at LSU. The score or time had nothing to do with give your absolute best on that one particular play. And you do that one play at a time. And in the case of Chris Norton, "be 1-0 in every day and every way."
Chris Norton’s teammates filled the stands and sidelines as Luther’s football team brought its honorary captain onto the field, roaring with victory before the game even began.
Sure, there was a football game about to take place on this afternoon in September. But this was a victory both sides could celebrate.
The last time Norton stepped on this field in Decorah, Iowa, he left in an ambulance with a compressed spine and a 3 percent chance of regaining feeling below the neck. But this roaring crowd was filled with the teammates who helped ensure those odds would be flipped.
The collision had violently hyperextended Chris’ neck, shifting two bones and compressing the spinal cord. Terry had watched his son finish a basketball game after getting head-butted in the face, so when Chris stayed down, Terry knew it was bad. He and Deb rushed to the field for the first time in Chris’ career. A hushed crowd watched paramedics secure Chris to a backboard and whisk him away in an ambulance. The hospital was arranging helicopter transport to the Mayo Clinic by the time Chris arrived.
As the Nortons prayed, the community mobilized. Coach Mike Durnin and his wife, Karen, made quick trips home and to Wal-Mart to gather supplies. Five teammates from Chris’ residence hall drove up and spent the first night at the hospital with him. NFL and college coaches, Luther alumni and players from rival teams flooded the clinic with shows of support.
“You see the true character of people in situations like this,” Durnin said. “And the character that I witnessed and the outpouring toward Chris and his family is there are a lot of great people in the world. People who truly care.”
One step at a time, family and community pulled together. But while many focused on whether Chris would walk again, the 19-yearold was concentrating on simpler goals. Rehab became his new sport, and he worked like the football team’s slogan preached: “Be 1-0 in every day and every way.” So a day at a time he pushed himself through extra exercises, increasingly extensive stretches on his arm bike and, eventually, straining through longer periods standing upright.
That ethic has been key to his recovery. He is now able to feel movement throughout his entire body and is back on campus taking classes while continuing his rehab at the Mayo Clinic and with therapy in Decorah.
The sum of that work leaves his doctors in awe. Three times per week he works out on his arm bike in the morning before heading to his three classes. When class lets out, it’s off to therapy to work on standing, walking and building his core strength. Then on his off days, it’s off to Mayo for four hours of rehab, followed by a 12-mile ride on his leg bike.
The payoff is clear: Chris walks with more coordinated strides and increasing strength with each passing week, always pushing himself like an athlete preparing for his life’s biggest game.
“In many respects,” Terry said, “he’s trained his whole life for this.”