Joe Theismann once said of rugby: “Rugby is great. The players don’t wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that.”
To his friends, 44-year-old John Norman (“Norm”) is Theismann’s kind of rugby player.
From Elizabethtown, PA, Norman can’t remember when he wasn’t always active. “I played high school football and rugby from college until I was hurt at 44 years old,” Norman says, “And I’ve always been a powerlifter.”
Norman describes himself as “A husband and a dad of 3 wonderful children. I’m a High School Rugby Coach, and I run a brewery –Funk Brewing– in Allentown.”
Throughout his marriage and raising three active kids, Norman’s wife, Karrie Norman, has been right by his side.
“My wife has been the most essential part,” beams Norman. “Before I got hurt, it was a challenge for the two of us to get them everywhere,” he says.
After his injury, Norman says Karrie didn’t miss a beat, even while adding in the extra duties of shuttling him to his various appointments.
“She was able to get the kids everywhere without having them sacrifice any activity, all while being able to see me in the hospital every day,” he says.
When Norman came home, he still wasn’t able to help. “She did it all and got me to my PT and everywhere else I needed. Again, all while ensuring that our children could get everywhere they needed to be,” says Norman.
“I truly would not be as far along as I am without her love and support.”
Norman stresses that he has always been physically active, on the go, and mentally active. “And, as a dad, I was always playing with my children.”
He admits 18 months after his fall, he ignored his “aches and pains.”
“Well, it hurt, but I was 44,” he chuckles. “My neck hurts, my shoulder hurts, my knees hurt.”
“You know, I was a rugby player, which is like football with no pads and really rough. So, most things hurt all the time.”
Bump Your Head, and…
Norman was working, carrying something up some stairs, when he felt himself slipping.
“I was bent over and lost my balance,” he recounts, “So, I put my head and hand out to break my fall, and my neck broke.” Norman surmises that he landed on his face /forehead or chin, which sent his head hurling toward his back, crumbling his neck.
Later, Norman learned that his C4-C5 vertebrae were badly degenerated discs in his neck that were almost gone. He also had a plethora of torn ligaments, none of which occurred during the accident.
“Being hard on my neck for a long time just made it very weak,” he admits, “and being the athlete I was, I tended to ignore it.”
Praying for Calm
Norman’s memory is foggy, surrounding his initial reactions to his injury. “I was scared and was praying. I just focused on God to help me stay calm while I waited to get to the hospital.”
Norman was taken to UPMC Williamsport. When the doctors came in, they told him he was a C4-C5 incomplete and what that meant.
“They asked me, ‘What’d you do to your neck over your life?’”
Norman answered that maybe he was a little hard on it over the years.
He spent two weeks in its ICU, where he says they started physical therapy immediately.
Get Me HOME!
After those two weeks, Norman was transferred to Penn State Hershey Rehabilitation Hospital. “I spent a week and a half there.”
Was this because of insurance?
“Nah,” says Norman, “It was because of me.”
Hershey asked him about his goals for physical therapy. Norman responded, “I want to go home and be with my kids.” When they asked what else? “I told them, ‘That’s it.’”
“And when they asked about my fingers, which suffered due to his C4-C5 SCI. I said, ‘The only goal I have now is I want to get home.’”
Norman worked like a rugby player, wheeling himself through the halls, “And I did every, every extra therapy, whatever they would let me do.”
What was on Norman’s side was that he was, and still is, in incredible shape physically—also, his dogged spirit of determination and rugby-tough body, mind, and spirit.
Family is Everything
Plus the unrelenting love for his family.
“Benjamin is my eight-year-old boy. Caitlin is my 15-year-old daughter, and Allison is my 17-year-old daughter,” beams Norman. “And she’s a senior in high school, senior cheer captain.”
“So that makes me emotional, too. Talking about the hospital makes me emotional. Talking about my daughter graduating gets me emotional,” he admits.
“But I got to write the weightlifting program for her cheer team,” Norman says, adding it’s a way he can still stay involved.
It’s no wonder Norman wanted to get home.
Norman can walk, albeit “wonky.” “Okay. I mean, I’m slow and unstable. Crowds are weird. Down steps are weird, but I can do it,” Norman says confidently. He uses hiking sticks to check his balance.
Since he is so well-versed in bodybuilding, muscle recovery, and learning about injuries, he has devised his own PT program using resources he found on the internet.
That Alone Feeling
But for all Norman’s confidence, like many people who get hurt while leading full, active lives, he sometimes feels alone.
He deals with upper-body spasticity and is still learning the limits of what that spasticity will allow.
Norman theorizes it is protective. “If I’m trying to walk in a hurry or if it’s cold, I get spasticity and become more imbalanced,”
“Everything happens,” he says, “and I need to relax. I calm down or slow down, or whatever it is. That hurts.”
But even with all this activity, Norman still felt alone with his injury.
“So I just started following people on social media that had injuries,” he says. He brings up Ryan Shazier’s paralyzing football injury.
“And I remembered the exact moment and play where Ryan Shazier got hurt,” says Norman.
He read and listened to “Walking Miracle” and was inspired to dive deeper.
Norman googled Shazier, saw the website, and read many Shalieve Stories. He also saw how Ryan was giving back and helping others.
Norman decided that he had a lot to give to the SCI community. “I don’t have much money, but I’m a good speaker and own the Funk Brewery in Allentown. “I became compelled to do something.”
“So, I connected with the Pittsburgh Bonnet County Fund dinner during my searches. I went to one of their dinners and felt less alone,” admits Norman.
Brewmaster for a Cause
He offered to brew some “funding” beers for special causes to the Bonnet organization, with parts of the proceeds going to the fund of their choice.
“We did a beer called “The Fallen,” and it had the names of 50 fallen soldiers on it,” he says. The proceed portion went to help a Gold Star Family.
And then Norman thought he could reach out to The Ryan Shazier Fund and brew a beer for The Fund.
The idea has been well-received, and during our conversation, I could hear the enthusiasm growing in Norman’s voice.
And if the beer for Shalieve is anything like Jon Norman, expect it to pack a punch while letting you continue your self-directed path.