Editor’s note: The following is the second installment of a three-part series chronicling the injury and recovery of 22-year-old UND football player Hunter Pinke. Part 1 covered his positive approach and motivations, Part 2 covers his future plans and goals and Part 3, which will publish Friday, will cover the lasting legacy of his story in this region.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Hunter Pinke needed closure.
The 22-year-old UND football player severed his spine in a ski accident Dec. 27 and has been recovering at Craig Hospital, a spinal cord injury rehabilitation center in this southern Denver suburb.
When he struck a tree head first in order to avoid a collision with another skier, Hunter never lost consciousness, so he was fairly certain he could recall what happened on Keystone Mountain, on a blue-rated “easy” run to start that day.
Hunter was wearing a GoPro camera at the time of the accident, and he wanted and needed to watch that video.
So three weeks after his accident, Hunter and his dad Nathan hooked up a computer with an HDMI cord and played the video on his parents’ television at their temporary apartment near Craig.
Hunter said his mom, Katie, will never watch the video.
“Sometimes you second-guess, like, did I do something wrong?” Pinke said. “Is this my fault? That kind of thing.
“It really clarified what I thought happened. He was in my blind spot. There was actually a tree right where he was when I was coming out of the trees. I didn’t see him until I was a couple of feet from him.
“It kind of actually put a sense of clarity and peace, in that, I could’ve done this a thousand more times and not have it end like that. This one time, that tree was there, I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me. We couldn’t have done anything different.
“I needed that second thing to clarify. (Hospital psychologists) wanted to be careful because those things can spur and trigger a lot of emotions. You can go talk to my psychologist, but I think I’m pretty mentally stable.
“I came to the realization that if you second-guess everything in your life, you’re going to waste too much time of your life, and it’s not worth it. So I just kind of put it in the backseat and said, it happened, and now what’s important is what’s going to happen from here on out.”
At peace with his accident, and feeling fortunate to be alive, Hunter was able to turn his attention to the future.
Whether that future includes a lifetime with a wheelchair or not, Hunter is content.
“There are going to be doors that have closed for me,” Pinke said. “But far more doors will open up because of this situation. So I’m not sure what those are going to be, but I know that it’s going to be big. I can assure you of that. Whatever it might be, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. It’s going to be big.”
Hunter holds out hope he can walk again, whether it be through biology or technology. A Christian leader on UND’s campus and within the football program, Hunter believes God can perform any miracle and trusts His plan.
He tells family he’s starting in a wheelchair “for now.”
When Katie tells him she doesn’t want the question of walking again to put pressure on his recovery, Hunter responds, “Mom, I thrive under pressure.”
At the same time, Hunter understands at least one medical professional gave him a 2% chance to walk again.
When he heard those odds, Hunter said, “I can’t wait to prove them wrong.”
Doctors tell Hunter the most important neurological recovery time for his complete spinal cord injury is the first six months, then up to 24 months.
Still, Hunter isn’t wasting any time making plans to return to North Dakota.
He has 34 credits left at UND to achieve his mechanical engineering major. He plans to return to campus in the fall of 2020 to finish his degree.
“That’s going to happen,” Hunter said. “That’s a fact, yeah.”
Hunter also plans to return to the UND football program in 2020. He joked that offensive coordinator Danny Freund is going to have to get awfully creative to get him a touchdown, though.
He said he’s going to miss parts of playing football.
“I think Kobe probably said it better, like the dream is in the process, then you look up after it’s all done, and you see what happened,” Hunter said. “I’m going to miss the locker room. I’m going to miss the weight room with the guys. I’ll miss the trips. I’ll miss game days, running out of the helmet. The game of football gave me so much more than I gave it. There are memories I will be forever grateful for.”
Hunter played sparingly during the 2019 season as he battled through injuries and the program implemented an offense that used fewer tight ends.
“I can’t feel them right now, but my knees were telling me that it was time,” Pinke said. "Yeah, I’m going to miss football but at the same time, I’m ready for my next chapter.”
But first, Pinke wants to leave an impact on the 2020 Fighting Hawks.
“I plan on being very involved,” he said. “To me, I’m still part of the team. I mean, I might not be catching touchdowns, which I didn’t get many anyway, but I fully expect to be watching film this year and helping us make the playoffs again. Football is going to be part of my life, the rest of my life.”
Although Hunter emits a positive message and demeanor, there are still thoughts of life back out in the real world that make him nervous.
“The most challenging thing is when we go out in public for therapeutic recreation,” Pinke said. “For instance, I went to a movie. And, you can’t sit in any seat. There are little things that you take for granted. Like, I can’t walk up a flight of stairs yet without somebody helping me. It definitely humbles you. I can’t reach something on the top shelf. So stuff that you used to be able to do, simple everyday tasks, you have to get used to asking for help. It’s challenging but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing because at times humbling yourself and just saying I need help isn’t a bad thing.”
When Hunter was asked about his hopes and dreams for the future last week, he recalled a speech by Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
“He said, ‘How do you pray? Are you praying to have your life blessed? Or are you praying to bless other people’s lives?’” Hunter said. “That’s stuck with me in that going forward you just want to leave a positive impact on people. That hasn’t changed my entire life. I want to be a blessing in people’s lives in whatever way that can be.”
Hunter said he wants to have a career and a family, too, which hasn’t changed from before his injury to now.
“People don’t quite understand, most paraplegics, we can do pretty much everything a regular human can do but just in a different way,” Hunter said. “So my dreams and aspirations haven’t changed. I’m going to do everything I set out to do, and I want to be a blessing in people’s lives.”
Hunter isn’t sure what his future career looks like -- he has his doubts about working in an office doing math -- but he’s sure he’ll somehow have a role that expresses his faith to others.
“I think my life probably wouldn’t be as fulfilled as it could be if I didn’t pursue some kind of preaching of the gospel and my story and the faith I believe so strongly in,” Pinke said. “I have such a wide variety of backgrounds. I was a three-time state champ in FFA (Future Farmers of America), played multiple sports, was in science olympiad, science fair, FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), volunteered, worked at a thrift store in college. I can relate to so many kinds of people. I don’t want to say this in a cocky way, but I have a lot of doors I can go through.”
One of Hunter’s mentors asked him during rehab what scares him the most.
“I said the snow,” Hunter said. “The UND maintenance crew and I will become good friends. I’ll need clear sidewalks. The weather doesn’t scare me but it’ll be a challenge to go through six months of winter.
“It’s interesting because right now I’m in the Craig bubble. Everyone here is in a wheelchair and going through this. When I go back to North Dakota, I’ll be one of the few and far between. I don’t know if I’d say I’m scared; I look at it as a challenge. I don’t think there’s any place for fear. I probably did the scariest thing ever going head first into a tree at a high speed. Anything beyond this isn’t fear, it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”