Chris Norton says it was a “dream” of his to walk across the stage at his college graduation.
Four years after fracturing his neck and compressing his spinal cord in a football accident that left him wheelchair-bound, the 23-year-old did just that, walking across the stage Sunday at Iowa’s Luther College to accept his diploma.
“I set that goal and I knew I had to work as hard as I could to make it happen,” Norton said today on “Good Morning America.”
Part of that hard work for Norton included finishing his college classes a semester early so he could move to Michigan and focus on his physical therapy.
In Michigan, Norton spent hours each day training with Mike Barwis, the owner of Michigan-based Barwis Methods, who says he has helped nearly 50 patients come back from neurological injuries.
“He was a guy who struggled to stand on his own … now he has control of his life,” Barwis told ABC News of Norton. “Neurological re-engineering is a system I devised for neurological patients to help them recover, to rejoin a regular life.”
Dr. Arthur L. Jenkins III, co-director of the Neurosurgery Spine Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, says most neurological patients do not make the kind of progress Norton has made.
"On the one hand, we are getting better, but we still have a long way to go even in the best-case scenario," Jenkins told ABC News.
"We are still only getting one-third or one-fourth of patients to his level of function and you don’t get there without determination and work, with people who have the passion to get where he’s gotten," Jenkins said.
Norton was also helped in his recovery by his now-fiancee, Emily Summers, whom Norton calls “so tough.”
“She is my hardest trainer I’ve ever had,” he said.
Summers was on stage with Norton in Decorah, Iowa, as he walked to receive his college degree, having accepted a surprise marriage proposal from him the night before.
“I told him he wasn’t going to be able to pull it off, where he was going to surprise me but I figured out he’s been planning it for like three months, four months,” Summers said. “I was in absolute shock.”
“He is the best person I’ve ever met,” she said of Norton. “He’s such a hard-working, determined person and makes me better and inspires me to do more in my life as well.”
Norton credits his faith, family and friends for getting him from being able to only nod his head yes and no four years ago, after the injury, to talking and taking steps today.
In the days after the injury, Norton says he did not listen when doctors told him there was only a 3 percent chance he would ever walk again.
“It went in one ear and out the other,” Norton said. “It was not going to determine who I was or what I will be and I was going to defeat the odds no matter what.
“I just had my mind set and I just had a feeling that God had a bigger plan for me and just to stay the path and do my part,” he said.
Norton and his parents are working on a book about his recovery, focusing on “the power of faith when tragedy strikes,” which is due out later this year.