Editor’s note: The following is the third 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 covered his future plans and goals and Part 3 covers the lasting legacy of his story in this region.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before the UND football team would run through the inflatable helmet at the edge of the Alerus Center turf, Hunter Pinke would command the attention of his team.
“There’s a couple of minutes right before you go through the doors, where past years sometimes you just stand there quiet,” former UND wide receiver Noah Wanzek said. “This past year, Hunter took that liberty and everyone loved it. He’d yell something inspirational and get the guys going. The way he rallied the guys and got everyone pumped up … we went undefeated at home last year.”
UND tight end Derek Paulson said this pregame moment is one of his favorites.
“It’s a God-given talent that Hunter has -- the ability to inspire and lead,” Paulson said.
During 2019, that ability to inspire and lead was infectious throughout the Fighting Hawks football program.
In 2020, that ability to inspire and lead is branching out to a much larger audience.
On Dec. 27, 2019, Pinke suffered a severed spine during a ski accident in Keystone, Colo., when the 6-foot-5, 243-pound 22-year-old went head-first into a tree in an attempt to avoid a collision with another skier.
Since the accident, Pinke has been rehabbing and recovering at Craig Hospital in this southern Denver suburb, where his upbeat attitude and faith-driven message have left a far-reaching impact.
The social media numbers alone are staggering. His mother, Katie, has provided updates on a Facebook group “#PinkeStrong.” The group has more than 10,800 members and daily activity filled with inspirational posts and comments.
Hunter’s GoFundMe account has raised $176,568 as of early this week, with more than 1,800 donors and 6,600 shares on social media.
“It’s really overwhelming and humbling,” Hunter’s dad, Nathan, said. “There are so many people that have commented to us how they’re praying more and growing in their faith because they watch Hunter’s journey. They’re taking time to step back and appreciate what they have. I can’t tell you how many people, the ones I interact with back in our business there in Wishek, they say how they’ve taken more time to recognize things that they had taken for granted.”
As he sat in his fourth-floor Craig Hospital room, Hunter dug into drawers to pull out box after box of the hand-written letters he’s received from all over the country.
The messages transcend sports rivalries, and those are some of the notes held most dear.
One of his favorites came from Linton boys basketball coach Dan Carr, a North Dakota Sports Hall of Famer who Hunter’s South Border high school team often matched up against.
Another was from former North Dakota State running back Chad Stark, a member of the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame.
Hunter’s GoFundMe is filled with comments from those with UND connections but also those cheering for NDSU -- even James Madison football fans.
A member of his Facebook group posted Feb. 18 a photo of all of the girls basketball players in North Dakota’s District 6 wearing “PinkeStrong” T-shirts.
“You see a picture of the girls in District 6 … it’s been humbling,” Pinke said. “I really don’t want this story to be about me, though. I don’t want it to be a reflection of me. I’d rather have it reflect on the goodness of God and how I’m still alive and look how people have come together.”
Pinke then motioned to the back wall of his hospital room, where dozens of photos can be seen of Hunter with his friends and family.
“I want this story to be a reflection of the wall behind you, of the people who supported me,” Pinke said. “Just how people come together when people need help, which I think North Dakota is pretty good at.”
Pinke’s background is small town North Dakota. He spent much of his youth with his parents in Wishek, N.D., and with his grandparents in Aneta, N.D.
Those communities have rallied around the Pinke family since the accident.
“The North Dakota community -- we always have each other’s back,” Pinke said. “Class B towns -- you argue at times and bicker. Living with the same people year round can be frustrating at times but when someone needs help in trying times these people come together and that doesn’t happen everywhere. I just say ‘thank you’ from the bottom of my heart. Not only to Class B towns but Grand Forks and the whole state. I say humbling a lot, but that’s how I feel. This stuff ... I don’t take for granted.”
Hunter’s college football coach, Bubba Schweigert, isn’t just any college football coach to the Pinke family.
You can count the towns in McIntosh County in south-central North Dakota on one hand. In McIntosh County, the Pinkes lived in Wishek and Schweigert is from Zeeland. Nathan’s father owned Wishek’s lumber yard. Schweigert’s dad was a contractor, so the two built homes together.
Schweigert was able to visit Pinke last week in Colorado.
“Seeing him in person makes it real -- the extent of the injuries,” Schweigert said. “What else is real is the positive attitude he has and the inspiration he gives to so many people around him.”
Schweigert spoke with Pinke about his role in 2020. Hunter plans to return to Grand Forks to finish his mechanical engineering degree and help with the football program any way he can.
“He wants to be invested,” Schweigert said. “I think that’s important for all of us. During recruiting of Hunter years ago, I just felt like if he wasn’t captain, he was going to be a leader. There will definitely be a positive role for him in 2020.”
That’s important to Hunter’s teammates.
“One of the first things I texted (UND tight ends coach Shawn Kostich) was that nothing happens to Hunter’s locker,” Paulson said. “We’ve got that figured out. I think he’s going to be a huge inspirational part of the team and just going to be awesome to have him around.”
Paulson and Pinke came in together, at the same position and with something to prove. Paulson was a walk-on from Wisconsin and Pinke hailed from small-town, 9-man football.
“When we got here, we were pretty damn weak physically,” said Paulson, who, along with teammate Brett Finke, flew to Colorado to visit Hunter after his accident. “With our max outs, we weren’t able to hang with the big boys, but we had that drive to do extra work and do what we needed to to close the gap with those who were more gifted from the start.”
Paulson grew close to Pinke, spending time in meetings and practices. He was inspired by his visit at Craig.
“It was honestly just good to see him,” Paulson said. “When we first heard, it was pretty tough. We didn’t know the extent of it, but it was really good once we got out there and got in the same room. He’s just the same dude. Horrible circumstances, but he’s still Hunter. That was encouraging.”
In a long interview about his injury and the future, Pinke’s voice never cracked and his emotions never overcame him.
The only moment to nearly choke him up was speaking about his bond with Wanzek, a fellow North Dakota native from Jamestown, who became a close friend at UND.
Pinke spoke of the two embracing after playing their final game together in the first round of the FCS playoffs at Nicholls State in Louisiana.
“I went over to him, and we were taking pads off, and we hugged,” Pinke said. “Man, the love you feel in that moment. That’s the stuff to hold onto.”
In UND’s 2016 recruiting class, Pinke was one of the first to commit to UND. Wanzek was one of the last.
Former UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt, a North Dakota native like Pinke and Wanzek, asked Pinke to call Wanzek to coax him to join the Fighting Hawks.
Wanzek was driving back to Jamestown from a visit to Minnesota State Moorhead when Pinke texted him.
“He said he wanted to talk,” said Wanzek, who became one of UND’s all-time best at wide receiver. “He told me why he chose UND. That was definitely … I’d be lying if I said that didn’t have an impact on me coming to UND.”
“I called (Wanzek) and his mom had just passed away,” Pinke said. “My friend had just passed away, so I said we both dealt with loss and this could be a new chapter together. This could be a fresh start.”
Wanzek was on Keystone Mountain when Pinke was injured and was one of the first to approach Pinke, who was surrounded by Ski Patrol.
“It’s incredible how he’s handled this from Day 1,” Wanzek said. “On the mountain, I found him with Ski Patrol around him. I came up, and he knew he was injured pretty bad but he was joking around and extremely nice to the Ski Patrol. There was never a moment where he was mad.”
Wanzek spent a lot of time with Hunter in the hospital in the days following the accident.
“He attacks it with the same mentality as football,” Wanzek said. “There’ll be adversity, but it’s how you react. It’s crazy how he’s looking at it as a challenge, not letting it control him and change his life. His cousin, (former UND football player Derek Murph), had a good quote on him. He said if Hunter identified only as a football player, he’d be in rough shape. But he identifies through Christ. That helps a lot and gives him strength.”
Wanzek and Pinke live together in a five-bedroom house on 6th Avenue west of Interstate 29 in Grand Forks.
“It’s hard right now, living there, walking by his room every day,” Wanzek said. “We miss him.”
Currently, Wanzek is training for a future in pro football.
“I’ll remember this journey the rest of my life,” Wanzek said. “I’m training to hopefully continue playing football. Hunter is going to be one of those people I’m doing it for. He had his senior year taken away, and I’ll cherish every moment I get to do what I love. I’ll remember what he’s going through and the way he’s handled this forever.”