EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first installment of a three-part series chronicling the injury and recovery of 22-year-old University of North Dakota football player Hunter Pinke. Part 1 covers his positive approach and motivations. Part 2 will cover his future plans and goals. Part 3 will cover the lasting legacy of his story in this region.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Crammed behind the UND sweatshirt and next to the Bible in the shelves of Hunter Pinke’s fourth-floor Craig Hospital room is the helmet he wore when he severed his spine while skiing Dec. 27.
There’s a golf-ball-sized dent on the rear of the helmet – put there by a tree on a mountain in Keystone, Colo., less than two months ago.
At the head of his bed sits a pillow emblazoned with a photo of Hunter with friends Zach Kvalvog and Jacob Strinden taken after a 2015 high school basketball game in Jamestown.
Kvalvog, along with younger brother Connor, died in an I-94 car crash near Dalton, Minn., June 23, 2015, at 18 years old, on his way to a basketball tournament in Wisconsin.
The helmet and the pillow serve as daily reminders of why Hunter feels lucky.
Lucky, despite not having feeling in his legs.
Lucky, despite being a 22-year-old Division I athlete now relegated to a wheelchair.
Lucky, despite some doctors telling him he’ll never walk again.
The helmet and the pillow are why the UND football team’s tight end still flashes his dimples and laughs as he navigates nine-hour days of physical and occupational therapy at Craig, a spinal injury recovery center in this southern Denver suburb.
It’s why his positive approach and mindset are inspirational to hospital staff, his family, UND friends, people across North Dakota and beyond.
“I tell people I have no bad days,” said Pinke, wearing a gray T-shirt, black athletic pants and a baseball hat with part of a Bible verse from Joshua 1:9 – “Be strong and courageous.”
“People say you’re going to have a bad day. I mean no disrespect to them, but I just disagree with it. I’m not going to have a bad day. I have tough days. But no bad days, because every day from now on is a day that I don’t take for granted. You know, I was in a situation where all of my days could’ve been taken away from me, so I’m no longer a glass half full or glass half empty. I’m just glad I’ve got a glass.”
Pinke has been skiing since he was 8. His family often visited Big Sky Resort in Montana, but he’d also skied in Oregon and Wisconsin.
He’d never skied in Colorado, so when friend and teammate Noah Wanzek asked him to go after the Fighting Hawks’ season ended in a first-round FCS playoff loss at Nicholls State in Louisiana, he jumped at the opportunity.
In his group of seven skiers, Hunter was the most talented. On his first run, instead of quickly navigating the mountain and leaving the others behind, he went halfway, waited for his group to pass and followed behind.
It was a blue-rated Mozart run on Keystone Mountain, an “easy” run the group started with in order to reach the outback runs they wanted to ski later in the day.
Then in an instant, Pinke’s life changed forever. Another skier cut off his path, and Pinke – at 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds – attempted to avoid the collision.
As a result, Pinke, who was wearing a helmet his dad bought him years before, was in a “head-first baseball slide into home plate.”
At that point, he made a football move. He tucked his head like a ball carrier taking on a tackle from a linebacker.
“I tucked my head and kind of lowered my shoulder, which is a complete football instinct,” he said. “When I told the doctor that, he said that probably saved my life. My football instinct probably saved my life.”
The force from the impact with the tree went through Pinke’s cervical spine, which is generally the neck area. It didn’t break his neck, but it broke his thoracic spine, which runs from the base of the neck down to the abdomen.
“I wasn’t really out of consciousness; I remember everything,” Pinke said. “My first thought is ‘oof,’ this is my toughest fall. This was a hard fall. I’ve fallen hard from skiing before.
“You move to get up, but you don’t move your hips or your legs. You try again, and you still don’t move. You realize something serious happened here. That was my first realization that this was pretty bad.”
He was airlifted off the mountain to Frisco, Colo., before being taken by ambulance to St. Anthony's Hospital in Lakewood, where he underwent eight hours of surgery.
Hunter’s spinal injury is classified as T6-T7, which is in the middle range of his back. The thoracic spine has T levels from 1 to 12 with 1 being the highest point of the thoracic spine in the back.
Through surgery, diagnosis and recovery, Pinke never appears bitter. At Craig, he challenges doctors to wheelchair basketball, plays his guitar to the tune of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” during occupational therapy and banters with his sisters Elizabeth (12) and Anika (10) during a game of HORSE in the gym.
“His personality, his drive, his light-hearted nature, his spirit – all that stands out about him,” said Jeff Berliner, Craig Hospital director of Spinal Cord Injury Research and co-director of Outpatient Medicine. “Just the way he tackled it at such a young age, to be so mature, to be so driven and so focused and understand what he wants to achieve … so that way, down the road, he can live the life he wants to live.
“Just like he would achieve in school, achieve on the football field, achieve at the church, all those characteristics that he had before he brought with him to rehab. And he’s done an absolutely amazing job.”
Hunter had a ‘why me?’ moment, but it was brief. A matter of seconds, Pinke said.
“Right after I thought ‘why me?’, I thought ‘why not me?’” Pinke said. “Why can’t I be the guy in the wheelchair that helps change peoples’ lives. You know, I just had to fix my mindset – from why did this bad thing happen to me to why not me? New challenge, new opportunities.”
Hunter’s mom, Katie, thinks a big part of the reason her son has a mature, positive mindset through his injuries is because of his high school experience with the death of his friend Zach.
Until 2007, Hunter lived in Fargo and went to school at Park Christian in Fargo’s Bethel Church, where he became friends with Zach from kindergarten to third grade.
They started basketball together at the YMCA in Fargo at age 6, then joined a traveling team together in sixth grade after the Pinkes moved to Wishek. The team eventually became an AAU team.
“He buried his best friend at 17 and was a pallbearer at the funeral,” Katie said. “He’s been through trauma and tragedy previously.”
The Kvalvog crash left a lasting impression on Hunter. He had wanted to play college basketball, but after the crash, he no longer wanted to play the sport without Zach.
“You see how precious life is, and you cherish moments,” Pinke said. “Every moment. Whether it be walking down the street or rolling down the street … you’re still on that street. Zach isn’t on the street right now. I’m still living. I’m still breathing. I’m still kicking – not literally, but …”
Hunter’s disposition can also be tied to his Christian faith. He often led the UND football team in prayer after games and was a leader of UND’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“Our faith has gotten stronger because of his faith,” his dad Nathan said.
“Right after my accident, I told my mom I’m pretty sure the whole state of North Dakota is praying for me, and I think it’s probably still true,” Hunter said. “I think the amount of prayers that I receive really fills my spirit and my faith in Jesus Christ. That has really helped me and given me hope.”
Hunter doesn’t know if he could navigate this injury without his faith.
“My faith is so important,” he said. “It just gives me hope for another day. It gives me hope that there are bigger things than an SCI (spinal cord) injury. Some people, this would ruin their life, but I believe in a life after. I believe there’s more to life than walking. I think you can impact people in so many different ways.”
This faith-driven, blue-collar attitude developed in small North Dakota towns like Wishek (population 1,002) and Aneta (population 222) and through sports at little South Border, a co-op of towns about 100 miles southeast of Bismarck. It continued at UND.
“I think my past motivates me,” Hunter said. “I haven’t been the most fit on the football team or the fastest or the strongest but my work ethic to get something … I’m just going to work to get what I want.”
Nathan told Hunter that if he achieved a 4.0 grade-point average through high school, worked in the family business every summer and got a college scholarship, Nathan would buy him a pickup.
Hunter got the pickup.
“I’m just going to work and work and work until the job’s done, whether it be in football, whether it be in school or whether it be right now,” Pinke said.
Pinke jokes that he’s got Craig Hospital’s largest cheering section, often a group of family members led around by his mother. Hunter said his mom is a big influence on his drive and personality.
Hunter recalls as a young teenager his mom disciplining him for talking back over an argument surrounding the low place he took in a school competition.
She made him run a mile. Hunter came back and said he could do this all day. She made him run another mile. He gave up after six miles.
“You know, my mom was a single mom growing up,” Pinke said. “I remember we’d go to the grocery store on food stamps, and we didn’t have a lot of money. I just saw her working jobs and her mentality toward it. She was just going to do whatever it took to provide and make it work for me and her.”
Katie and Nathan met when Hunter was in elementary school. When the family moved to Wishek to take over Nathan’s family business, Hunter Lukens changed his name to Hunter Pinke without any coaxing from his parents. When Hunter turned 18, the family went through the official adoption process.
In Wishek, the Pinkes lived on the edge of town, a perfect combination of rural and city life. He lived next to the swimming pool, baseball field and basketball court. It was an ideal place for a star, four-sport athlete.
From the family porch, Katie could yell for Hunter to come to dinner if he was swimming or shooting baskets.
Katie’s parents, Fred and Jane Lukens, farm near Aneta, which is an hour southwest of Grand Forks. Hunter considers Fred one of his best friends, and the staff at Craig know “Big Fred” for having to duck underneath doorways.
Surrounded by that rural North Dakota culture, it fed into Hunter’s behavior, too.
“It’s pretty cliche, but that farm-work mentality of … you’re going to stay in the field until the job’s done, and it doesn’t matter what time it is,” Hunter said. “You work in acres, not hours.”