MIAMI -- On the early morning of July 4, Kendrick Norton Jr.'s life changed forever. A car accident took Norton's left arm and nearly killed him, but he has refused to allow that to end his story.
Listening to Norton and his girlfriend, Kira Williams, recount the details of that night, it serves as a recovery step. For the rest of us, it might be an eye-opening reminder of life's delicacy.
"What first comes to mind is [his] arm bleeding. I've never seen nothing like that day in my life. That will stick with me forever," Williams said. "To see his arm gushing, see veins, to see all that just pouring out in front of me."
Football players who know Norton can't imagine themselves handling this situation in such a positive manner. It's a mix of inspiration and awe.
"Seeing his smile and happiness after everything puts things in perspective. You rolled your ankle or somebody cut you off and you think you're having a bad day. OK, what are you complaining about? He lost his arm," said Isaiah Ford, a close friend who played with Norton at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, and is a Dolphins wide receiver. "The game he loves and played for so long was taken away from him abruptly. You don't see him crying, moping or complaining."
Here are excerpts of the conversation ESPN's Cameron Wolfe had with Norton about the accident and his post-NFL life. It is edited for brevity and clarity:
'They're the ones that saved my life that night'
Norton was driving his Ford truck home at 1 a.m. after a night out with Williams and friends. In an attempt to transfer lanes, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, Norton's truck made contact with another vehicle. Norton yelled, "Hold on," to Williams, who remembers the truck spinning around multiple times before making contact with a concrete barrier and flipping on its roof. Norton's left arm was completely severed in the accident.
"I was just fearful that the worst had occurred," said Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who was spending the July Fourth holiday on a Maryland farm with college friends and their families when he got the news. "I was really thankful when I heard that he was alive. And then my first thought was, "How do we help Kendrick? How do we support Kendrick? How do we help his family? What can I do?" The next day, we decided to come home and go see him."
Sometimes you catch Norton staring at what's remaining of his left arm. Yes, it's a permanent reminder of that July morning. But he also chooses to see it as a blessing he is alive.
Norton estimates he lost approximately half of the blood in his body that day. There were several moments as he was rushed to the hospital where he just wanted to sleep. Meanwhile, Williams remained at the scene waiting for a tow truck to lift up their flipped truck so she could secure Norton's severed left arm that laid underneath with the hope it could be reattached. Ultimately, doctors said his arm was crushed and nerves were damaged beyond repair, and they couldn't reattach it.
What do you remember from the accident?
"I remember laying on the ground at the accident scene waiting on the ambulance. You know, I feel like they took forever. That's really the only thing I was concerned about. I was like, where's the ambulance? Just laying on the ground and feeling all those people pulling on me and helping me, and I was squeezing Kira's leg."
You mentioned the people on the scene that arrived to help you. What do you recall about them?
"I just remember us getting out of the car. And I guess people had already stopped. So basically after we got out of the car, you know, it was immediately people already right there ready to help. They were taking belts off and shirts. And I heard them calling for different things. Some dude brought me some water from out of his car. There were just people coming from everywhere, helping me, to police officers cutting off my clothes.
"There were so many people around me trying to help keep Kira calm. She told me a lady took off her shoes and gave them to her. And, you know, those people basically left naked that day because they used all their stuff and gave it to us to help. So it was amazing seeing those people that don't even know you from a can of paint to get out of their car and do all that for us."
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I've learnt so much about you these past few months. I've seen you handle things that people shouldn't have to see. I've leaned on you and you were there. You've pushed me and never let me slack. Thank you for the love. The laughs and the memories we have made and I look forward to making many more. To: Kira #kenandkira
What would you say to those people if you could meet them?
"I would just tell them thank you. They're the ones that saved my life that night. We have the names of some people. But we're still trying to find that couple that actually were the first people on the scene to start helping."
When did you realize your arm was severed?
"When we were in the car and I was laying on my stomach trying to maneuver through the car to get to the window. And I tried to do a push up to, you know, lift myself off the ground. I fell over on the side that I was missing my arm. And that's when I realized that it wasn't there. I glanced down at it. I was like, 'Oh, snap, this is for real.' Then I kicked out the window. And we crawled out of the car. I was in shock just because there was so much going on. I hit my head. I was just thinking about getting out of the car, before it blew up, because obviously I'm still alive. I can move around fine.
"The first time I actually noticed all the blood I believe I was walking past the car. I saw blood squirt on the car. And I was like, 'Oh, crap.' And then everyone told me to lay on the ground. And that's when they went to applying tourniquets to my arm."
What were the moments like waiting for the ambulance?
"It was a little blurry for me, the vision, because I was losing a lot of blood. And I was just laying on the ground in my own blood. I'm losing a lot of blood. I just remember feeling really sleepy and really tired. I was looking for the ambulance.
"Kira had me squeezing her leg so she could see if I'm up [awake] or not. I could see her looking for the ambulance and on the phone calling people. The people behind me are trying to keep me up and stop the bleeding. They have three or four belts tied around my arm trying to stop the bleeding. There was just so much going on. So it was crazy."
Was there any point where you thought you weren't going to survive?
"Right before the ambulance came, I was like, 'I don't know if I'm gonna make it 'til they get here.' Then I heard them off in the distance. So it brought a little life back to me, a little more energy, a little more hope.
"Once I got in the ambulance, I asked the paramedics if it was OK for me to go to sleep. And they were like, 'No, no, no,' you know. So I was trying to fight through the ride.
"I felt a speed bump and I asked the paramedics again, you know, 'Are we at the hospital?' And when he told me yes, I told him, 'OK. Well, you guys should be able to handle it from here. I'm gonna go to sleep.' I was really tired from losing all the blood. That's when I kinda blacked out.
"I woke up again in surgery while they were cleaning my arm that night. I was yelling at the doctors. Like, "I'm awake, I'm awake. Put me back to sleep." I ended up passing back out from the medicine. They woke me up two days after the accident."
Taking an extra step
Norton is a mainstay around the Dolphins and Hurricanes facilities these days -- visiting former teammates and coaches, working out and soaking in the culture. He was the Dolphins honorary captain for the team's Aug. 8 preseason opener. The Dolphins are paying his full salary this season while he is on the non-football injury list, and the NFL/team insurance covered his medical bills.
Football has been a huge part of Norton's life since he was a kid growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. He had 16.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in his final two seasons at Miami and was named honorable mention All-ACC his junior year. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 draft by the Carolina Panthers. Norton spent some of the 2018 season on the Panthers' practice squad before he signed with the Dolphins in December. This season, he was competing to make the Dolphins' roster and be a contributor on their young defensive line. Norton could have helped the Dolphins with his run-stopping ability, but now he provides his former teammates inspiration every time he shows up at practices.
"I dedicate my season to Kendrick," Miami defensive tackle Davon Godchaux said. "It's a guy who can't be out here. He has one arm. It's sad. But you can do something about it by going out there and playing each and every snap for him. No. 75, we got him -- 100 percent. We're brothers."
Norton has embraced his new normal by doing some of the same activities he did before the accident, such as working out, cooking, driving and hosting a YouTube show with Williams. Speaking of normal, Williams nicknamed his residual limb "Little Ken" to make it feel like a more natural part of Norton rather than a burden. He loved the idea.
Do you miss football?
"Yes. I definitely miss football, every day. Just not being in my routine, getting up early, and you definitely miss it. But I've accepted it and ready to move on."
When you walked out to practice for the first time after the accident, what went through your mind?
"It was a lot of adrenaline. I was a little nervous to see how my emotion was gonna be. But by the time I got on the field and before I could even take in anything, all the players and coaches came up to me and greeted me and immediately got my mind off of it. I immediately felt at home and felt welcome. Everyone was immediately right back joking and coming up to me. Even Coach brought me up and let me break down the team before a team period. So all of that was really special. I'll never forget it.
"Just getting back out there and seeing how close I could be to the game and handle it that early was very encouraging. I didn't know if I was gonna be able to handle it at first."
How have you embraced Little Ken?
"I just started to get used to it. I can move it more now. Sometimes at home, I even goof around with it. I'll dance with it to just make [Kira] laugh or make [Kira's] kids laugh or to lighten the mood. I Milly Rocked with it one time. I did a lot of goofy stuff with it. I'll raise it in the air and do different little things with it just to make her laugh."
Do you do workouts with Little Ken, as well?
"Yes, Kira helps me do them sometimes. She's been helping me out with my manual resistance. She's my little physical therapist. I still have full strength in my shoulder. I used to lift the nurses up off the ground when they were trying to apply strength trying to see how strong it was. So they were like, 'Whoa. You're really strong. You're a big guy. You don't need this.' So they thought it was really cool."
What day-to-day things surprised you as far as how difficult they are now with Little Ken?
"I can still maneuver through day-to-day life pretty regularly because I still have my dominant hand. But I'll be going to reach things and I'll realize, basically my whole left side of my body, I don't have any access to anything cause I can't grab anything. So it just makes everything take an extra step. So if something's on my left side for example, I'll have to get up and go get it instead of just leaning and reaching for it. So it's just different."
How long did it take you to adjust?
"I embraced it right away. In the hospital, I was connecting straws, making my straw longer so I can use my drink from far away. Always tried to keep a good, positive outlook on it. I don't usually get frustrated. I just try to find a different way to do it or even if I have to break down to ask Kira for help. She says I don't ask her for enough help. I try to do everything by myself. But that's just who I am."
'Following a script'
Norton hopes he will impact more people post-accident than he might have been able to on the field. He has seen daily examples when people reach out to him. He is putting together a nonprofit and is passionate about encouraging others to donate blood.
Norton wants to look into public speaking and sports broadcasting as a second career. He hasn't ruled out working as a part of a football team, but right now, he wants to focus full time on establishing his nonprofit.
"What he's giving out is him. He's not suicidal. He's happy. He's comfortable. He's comfortable in his own skin. He's comfortable with Little Ken," Williams said. "So don't worry about him. He's doing good. And you'll be seeing a lot of him in the future."
How have you tried to be an inspiration for everyone and specifically other amputees?
"I just wanna show them don't be scared to let people see any of your amputated body parts. Don't be ashamed of yourself. Don't let how other people view you determine how you see yourself, 'cause when you look in a mirror, be happy with whatever you see. That's you. And you have to live your life.
"I had a lot of them, countless, reach out to me on social media platforms. They DM me. They post videos of working out. I saw an amputee posted a video of him working out after I posted a video and tagged me in it. I reposted his video and talked to him a little bit on social media. We might be getting him to come get a workout in with us one day.
"I definitely feel a different type of [metaphorical] weight on my shoulders. But it's not anything that I can't carry. I'm going to keep pushing forward and continue to motivate, inspire and continue to be something for the young kids and even adults to look up to."
Have you ever thought, 'Why did this happen to me?'
"I never asked why this happened to me because it could've been worse. Why not me? Why someone else? They could ask the same thing. So I never would ask why me? It was just in the plans for me. I'll take it and roll with it every day."
What do you hope to accomplish with your nonprofit?
"It's gonna be called Kendrick Norton Angel's Initiative. And we're gonna be looking to help kids after tragic accidents where they lose limbs -- so young amputees -- helping them cope with that. And also it's gonna be focused on blood drives and bringing awareness to communities and different ethnicities.
"Donating blood became a passion of mine after the accident. I learned how important it is even if it's a bag or two of blood. Donating blood can save people's lives, because I was a recipient of it.
"It ended up saving my life. I received over 20 bags of blood in the hospital. I took a lot of blood from a lot of people. I just wanna tell everyone that I received blood from thank you."
Do you have any regrets?
"No. I don't live life with regrets. It's a hard life to live like that. Any choice I make since I was a child, I made it. I deal with the consequences from the choice -- good or bad."
What are your plans regarding your arm moving forward?
"I have one more surgery [which was performed Monday]. They're gonna unloosen some nerves and prep them for my prosthetic. I'm gonna have a prosthetic that I can control with my mind. I'll be able to physically move the prosthetic. It'll be a four-month healing process before I can actually move the prosthetic."
Norton's story serves as a reminder of how quickly life can change and why hardships don't always have to steal joy. "I feel like we're just playing parts in a play," Norton said. "Our life's already written for us. So I feel like we're just following a script."