Chris Norton poses in the weight room on Luther College’s campus. Norton was given a 3% chance of recovery after being paralyzed from the neck down in a 2010 football game.
In his first therapy session after the accident, just nodding his head was a struggle.
“I couldn’t sit up because the spinal cord also regulates your blood pressure, internal heating, cooling and everything, so I couldn’t sit up very far because my body couldn’t adjust,” said Chris Norton, 21, a junior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. “So I just did nodding and a lot of different stretches to stay loose and to focus on where my body is.”
Norton, of Des Moines, Iowa, had played football since he was a child. His freshman year, he was paralyzed from the neck down while halting the kick-off return during an Oct. 16, 2010 NCAA Division III game. In the process of the tackle, his helmet hit the ball carrier’s knee, damaging his spinal cord between vertebrates C3 and C4, which are located near the base of the skull. When he was unable to rise from the field, he was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for emergency surgery. At first, he was not given a high chance of recovery.
“Hearing that I had a 3% chance of ever moving anything below my neck was pretty heavy news, but the only thing you can really do is overcome it and rise through it,” Norton said. “I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to live the rest of my life. You just take it a day a time, and just do what you can to improve yourself.”
The last few years have seen several similar injuries in college football. Coincidentally, the same day, quarter and play of a game against West Point, then-Rutgers University junior Eric LeGrand suffered a similar blow to his neck, injuring his spinal cord at the exact same point – between C3 and C4. Even as recently as this past Saturday, Devon Walker, a senior defensive back for Tulane University suffered a traumatic blow to his cervical vertebrae — the section of the spine that runs from the base of the skull to the shoulders – in a head-to-head collision with a teammate.
Football, as a contact sport, carries with it some inherent risks at any level of competition, be it in the NCAA or the NFL. However, some are saying that these risks are on the rise. A study released last week by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and covered by USA TODAY, concluded that ex-NFL players are three or four times more likely to die from brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The NCAA also notes the risks to football players in an infographic on its website.
“Catastrophic spinal cord injuries are significant life-changing events and can sometimes result in death,” the graphic states. “From 2004 to 2009, there were three reported catastrophic spinal cord injuries in college football.” The NCAA was unavailable at the time of this writing with more recent data than 2009.
NFL Hall of Fame member and well-known former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said in a Fox Business video back in January, “[Football is] an action sport. It’s physical, it’s fast. … You go back to the Roman coliseum, and the warriors in the coliseum and now we have the warriors on the field, and they’re big and they’re strong and they’re muscle bound and they’re better than ever…”
Yet heroes on the field are now risking their lives just like the gladiators of old, as players get stronger and hits get harder. The possibility of permanent damage is now ever-present in the sport. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC), 8.2% of all spinal cord injuries are caused by sports, with 80.6% of those injured being male.
Norton said he isn’t as concerned with the dangers of football though, as much as the dangers of life.
“If I have a kid and he asks, ‘Should I play football?’ I’d say yes,” Norton said. “What happened to me is a freak accident, and freak accidents happen. It wasn’t like it was a dirty play on my part or his. I just mistimed a tackle by a half a second because I lost him in a crowd … it’s extremely unfortunate if something [happens]. I think that’s life. If you get into a car accident, you’re going to keep driving. You get in a bike crash, you keep riding a bike.”
Injured athletes like Norton face much more than just physical hardship though, as medical costs for their treatment skyrocket. The NSCISC estimates that in the first year of injury alone, a patient like Norton or LeGrand with a high-spinal injury will accrue $1,023,924 in expenses and $177,808 per year after that.
Norton said he’s been lucky in this aspect of his recovery.
“The NCAA has a ‘total catastrophe policy’ that insures home modifications and travel expenses to the hospital,” Norton said. “They provided a lot of therapy equipment, over $40,000 worth of therapy equipment that I use every day. … There’s a lot of odds and ends that they provide. It’s made a huge difference.”
But not everyone with injuries like Norton’s is so lucky. Because of the help he’s received from the NCAA, Norton formed his own foundation, SCI CAN, so he can reach out to others who have had similar injuries.
“There are a lot of spinal cord injury (SCI) individuals who are left without any good quality therapy though there’s different technology that could really help them,” Norton said. “There are three or four guys I’ve met who could all benefit from the opportunities I’ve had, but they were older so after [being an] in-patient at Mayo they all had to go home. … So they’ve struggled that way, or they have to drive to Mayo just to use the equipment and therapy. That’s why my foundation wants to provide the opportunity for people to stay at home and get good therapy.”
At the time of this writing, Norton continues to improve physically. Since the initial injury he’s regained much of the use of his arms and walked for the first time without therapist assistance Sept. 12.
“I’m at a point where a lot of the new strengths I’m getting are leading to more independence,” Norton said. “In the first year, just being able to move something was an accomplishment. But now, it’s like moving it while doing a task. It’s a lot of fun, doing new things.”
Norton continues to think about others’ needs, even as he makes strides in his own rehabilitation.
“I’ve been so blessed and fortunate with different opportunities throughout my life, now I want to pass it on to others with spinal cord injuries and provide them with the same success story I’ve had,” Norton said.
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