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For football player, a new sort of training

Chris Norton, 18, of Altoona, Iowa, discusses his recovery from a spinal injury. With him are his sister Alex, 21, and father, Terry.

Chris Norton came to Rochester in a medical helicopter.

The 18-year-old from Altoona, Iowa, injured his neck in October during a Luther College football game.

Damage to his spinal cord, doctors frankly told him, meant he was unlikely to ever again have control of body movement below the third and fourth vertebrae of his neck.

Chances of movement returning? Just 3 percent.

Norton, though, has already far surpassed his early prognosis — and is hopeful for much, much more.


He wants to walk again.

"You can't always listen to what people say you can or can't do," Norton says. "You've got to listen to yourself (and) keep believing."

He's undergoing intense physical, occupational and occasionally recreational therapy at Mayo Clinic's Saint Marys Hospital. He also gets help from family with extra therapy sessions during his off-hours at night.

"It's like two-a-days with football," he says.
Norton and his family have undertaken what will likely be about nine months of fervent initial recovery effort, followed by continued work at home to regain strength and motor skills. And they're not alone.

The spinal cord transmits signals from the brain to trigger movement elsewhere in the body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 12 percent of the 12,000 to 20,000 newly affected people each year are injured in a sport-related incident.

Because there's so much uncertainty about how much movement will return when someone gets a spinal injury, a positive attitude and dogged commitment are key. 

As senior captain, Norton was called one of the best football players ever at his Iowa high school. Similarly, at Saint Marys in Rochester, he's gained a reputation for extreme motivation.

His family members take turns coming to Rochester from Iowa to help him. Each time one returns, there's surprise at how far Norton has progressed.


"Having been gone just a week, I can't believe how much improvement has taken place," his dad wrote online on Norton's CaringBridge page last weekend. "Chris' arms, legs, and trunk continue to get stronger."

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