MUSCATINE — The story of an injured Iowa athlete and the woman who helped him walk again became a viral sensation. In a new book about their journey, Chris and Emily Norton want readers to know the past nine years haven't been easy, but they've been real.
"Seeing us in the media, people assume everything is great and we're in a great place," Emily said. "There have been a lot of struggles and challenges along the way."
Chris, 27, and Emily, 26, recently became adoptive parents to five daughters in the span of three months. In the book “The 7 Longest Yards,” out Tuesday, they share their story of learning not to let the fear of challenges you can see — and those you can’t — get in the way of living.
To understand the Nortons, you have to know how they came together.
In 2010, Chris was a freshman playing football for Luther College. In the sixth game of the season, when he went in for a diving tackle and collided with an opponent’s legs, he broke his neck. The injury left the 18-year old paralyzed.
He was told he had a 3% chance of regaining any feeling or movement below his neck. But a severe spinal cord injury didn't stop Chris.
Three years later, he met Emily Summers of Muscatine. He was training four to six hours per day, and Emily was his best personal trainer.
"She pushed me to keep going for more," he said.
Chris was training to walk across the stage for his college graduation ceremony. In 2015, he did, with Emily, by then his fiancee, by his side. The story went viral. A video of it, with commentary from Chris, has been viewed on YouTube more than 740,000 times. Chris and Emily appeared on morning talk shows and were featured in magazines.
After the first walk, Chris and Emily set another goal: Getting Chris strong enough to walk the seven yards down the wedding aisle. On April 21 last year, Chris and Emily did it together and became husband and wife.
Their story offers inspiration, not only because of Chris’ tenacity, but also because Emily is candid about her mental health struggles and how she found her way to wellness.
Emily discovered her passion for helping children when she was a student at Muscatine High School. She participated in the Police Mentor Program that paired high school students with elementary students in need. There, Emily met a young girl at Franklin Elementary School who would eventually become her daughter.
"I came from such a great family who was always supportive, who was always there," she said, "so I didn't really understand there were kids in our community who don't have that family or that support."
She said witnessing what Whittley, now 20, went through affected her more than she realized at the time. Emily graduated with a degree in family services from the University of Northern Iowa, and she kept in touch with Whittley.
“I just knew that I wanted to do everything in my power to help kids who were struggling,” she said. “Kids who were in these situations, who were being abused, neglected, who didn't know that they were really loved and special.”
She completed an internship after college at a group home for children in foster care. The experience was difficult, she said, because many of the youths didn’t have families and came from unthinkable situations.
She felt a hopelessness and belief life wouldn’t get better. It was hard to be vulnerable and seek help, she said, but doing so brought her back to the family, friends and faith she had turned away from.
"I want people to realize there's nothing wrong with you if you're going through something hard, if you've been through something hard, if you're struggling with mental health," she said. "It's such a strength to be able to ask for help, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes."
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The Nortons fostered Whittley while living in Florida before they got married, and they officially adopted her in December. They also adopted four Florida siblings, Ariana, 3, Izzy, 6, Lily, 8, and Ava, 10, from foster care in February.
Becoming a family of seven in a span of just a few months has had its crazy moments, Emily said, but they make it work.
"We have the most special girls that bring so much light and joy into our lives," she said.
She said they’ve learned a lot in the three years they’ve been foster parents, and they are still learning.
“The biggest thing is being able to give the control to God,” she said, “because there's so much as a parent that's out of your control.”
The Nortons plan to continue fostering children. Emily said those considering becoming foster parents should listen to their instincts.
"If you're thinking about it and it's in your heart, it's there for a reason," she said.
Fostering is not for everyone, she said, but related opportunities include mentoring to foster children or providing respite care to foster-care families.
“There's always something that we all can do to support kids in foster care or support their families,” she said.
Chris said following his injury, he thought he had to walk independently to be happy. Since becoming a parent, his focus is instead on providing for his family by inspiring people through his motivational speaking, books and documentary film.
He is hopeful about future advances in spinal cord injury research and treatment, and he established the Chris Norton Foundation in 2012 to assist others with neuromuscular injuries.
"I'm really content where I am," he said.
The Nortons made two stops in Iowa last week to sign copies of the book. Getting their story on paper was an effort, too. Chris said for some details, they had to remember difficult situations, “things you’d rather leave in the past.”
“Those harder moments also have shaped us into being a better couple, being better parents, just being more resilient,” he said.
Chris said people who have read advance copies of the book have told Emily how inspired they are by her vulnerability, and hearing those comments made Emily more confident.
"We have our wonderful moments," Chris said. "We work hard at being strong together, but we're just very real. We want to make sure that comes across, too."