He had an internship, physical therapy and online classes during the day. Weekends often were spent at the lake.
Hunter Pinke’s summer was a blur of activity.
Now the senior mechanical engineering student is back on campus at UND, carrying 17 credits this semester and working for the UND Alumni Association.
Though a December 2019 skiing accident has kept Pinke, a tight end, off of the football field, the 23-year-old still tackles life with the same intensity that helped him excel in sports.
Pinke was skiing in late December at Keystone Mountain in Colorado when another skier crossed in front of him. In an attempt to dodge him, Pinke crashed head-first into a tree. The helmet he was wearing saved his life, but the force from the impact of the collision with the tree broke Pinke’s thoracic spine. He was airlifted from the ski area to Frisco, Colo., then transported by ambulance to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, where he had an eight-hour surgery. In late January, Pinke began physical therapy at Craig Hospital, known for its treatment of patients with spinal cord and brain injuries.
At the hospital in southwest Denver, he underwent intensive physical therapy and also learned independent living skills. He has had ample opportunity to use those skills during the five months since being discharged from Craig Hospital.
In March, Pinke moved to the family farm near Aneta, N.D., about 70 miles southwest of Grand Forks. He spent the next two months adapting to home living, including playing a lot of basketball with his sisters.
In June, PInke got busy with work, college and physical therapy.
“My summer flew by,” Pinke told the Herald on Aug. 26 during a break between his first day of classes at UND. “It was busy.”
That was his summer plan.
“I told people I’d rather be busy than bored,” Pinke said.
Three days a week, he worked at Sheyenne Tooling and Manufacturing in Cooperstown, N.D., designing new products. The mechanical engineering major is grateful for the opportunity he had to do hands-on work in a real-life situation.
“They treated me like an engineer. They were a great place to work.” Pinke said.
When he wasn’t at his job at Sheyenne Tooling and Manufacturing, Pinke went to physical therapy in Grand Forks, where he worked to strengthen his shoulder muscles and learned various new skills, like going up and down curbs with his wheelchair and transferring himself into a vehicle.
He’s looking forward to soon being able to drive again.
“I’m kind of tired of the junior high stage: 'Mom can I have a ride?'” Pinke said with his signature dimples forming on the sides of his cheeks.
Pinke’s ride will not be the minivan that many wheelchair-bound people use. Instead, he'll drive a black 2019 Ford F150 that’s more in sync with the personality of the 23-year-old who likes to hunt upland game and deer, drive out to his family’s farm fields during harvest season and head to the lake on weekends.
Adapting to the life that is Pinke’s reality takes self-motivation, faith and grace. He has a large measure of all three, evidenced by his response to a question about whether life is getting back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I’ve never thought my life was going to be normal. I always thought my life was going to be different,” he said. He strives to make a difference in the world by the way he lives and by positive interactions with others.
“I hope they see kindness, compassion,” Pinke said. “I’m fine with people seeing the chair, but I hope they also see light and encouragement. Your injury is part of who you are, but it can’t be all of who you are.”
A major part of who Pinke is was developed by his faith in God, which has grown even stronger since his accident. He speaks openly about it and shared it with others this summer through preaching at church services.
“I’ve given an opportunity to share my faith. I’m not going to turn it down,” he said, crediting his mother, Katie Pinke, publisher of the Forum Communications Co. publication Agweek. She has encouraged him to speak.
Pinke also demonstrates his Christian faith in other ways, including physically wearing it under his sleeves. On his left bicep, he has a tattoo of 2 Corinthians 3:17; on his right, Proverbs 22:6 and James 1:2. He got the tattoos in 2019, planning to lift his arms to show them to football fans when he scored touchdowns.
Pinke doesn’t spend time dwelling on the fact that his football days have ended, or that other plans are on hold. Instead, he focuses on the positive.
“I have a pain-free life. I feel pretty fortunate in that aspect,” Pinke said.
The peace he has with his current physical limitations doesn’t translate into long-term acceptance, however. Pinke plans to walk again, and asks that the people who have prayed for him continue to ask God to heal him.
“Just keep on praying,” Pinke said, before rolling his wheelchair to his next engineering class.