Hunter Pinke had Dec. 27 circled on his calendar.

He wasn’t dreading the one-year anniversary of his life-changing ski accident, though. Nor was he anxious about it.

UND football coach Bubba Schweigert instilled in Pinke a “day-by-day” mantra during his time in college football and the philosophy stuck. That means dealing with the 27th, then moving on to the 28th.

Yet this Dec. 27 was a time to reflect on his growth, Pinke thought. So, he mentally ran down the timeline of events from one year ago, as the now 23-year-old was surrounded by family at his grandparents’ farm near Aneta, N.D.

At 9 a.m., Pinke thought back to going up Keystone Mountain in Colorado, to ski with friends to decompress from the recently finished UND football season. Around noon, Pinke recalled those moments after being airlifted to a hospital in Frisco, Colo., to receive the first scans of the injury that severed his spine, required an eight-hour surgery and made the athletic 6-foot-5, 243-pound tight end a paraplegic.

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“You now have those images of a year ago in your head, then it comes back to where I am right now, and I’m sitting around a table playing games with my little cousins and sisters and family,” Pinke said last week. “... And you realize life is pretty good. I’m thankful for that. A year ago, I didn’t know if I’d be sitting where I was. I’m sitting, but I’m thankful to be sitting because sitting is a lot better than being dead. Thinking back to where I was a year ago to where I am right now … gratitude floats over you.”

That unrelenting positive perspective in the face of adversity, and the achievements that have followed, led the Grand Forks Herald to name Pinke its 2020 Person of the Year. In 2014, the newspaper began the annual award, meant to recognize a Greater Grand Forks or area person who displayed exceptional courage or leadership or provided inspiration during the previous year.

Past winners are David Murphy, East Grand Forks city administrator, 2014; Richard and Susan Lunski, of Larimore, who aided in the aftermath of a train-bus collision, 2015; UND hockey coach Brad Berry and football coach Bubba Schweigert, 2016; then-UND President Mark Kennedy, 2017; Grand Forks natives and Olympic hockey players Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, 2018; and then-interim UND President Joshua Wynne, 2019.

Pinke’s message in the immediate aftermath of his injury – often summarized as “No Bad Days” – was an inspiration to UND, the community and beyond. He openly discussed his recovery process, began giving inspirational speeches and committed himself to community service throughout the past year.

His faith-inspired message was put to the test in 2020 by the ongoing pandemic. He noticed his message was received differently as COVID-19 cases surged, with so many searching for hope and gravitating to his story of triumphing over challenges.

“People were looking for something to grab on to, and I think my story, hopefully, was something that they could look upon and say, you know, ‘if he can do it, so can I,’” Pinke said.

He’s not offended when people complain about minor inconveniences of the pandemic, even though they often apologize to him for it.

“A lot of people catch themselves and say ‘Oh, I shouldn’t complain about that because it doesn’t compare to what you’re going through,’” Pinke said. “What I usually tell them is pain is pain, struggle is struggle and suffering is suffering. For example, I know people who have gone through cancer treatments. That’s a struggle; there’s pain involved with that. I’ve never done that. Just like you’ve never gone through what I’ve gone through, I’ve never gone through what you’ve gone through.”

Hunter Pinke works out with a trainer at Altru's Sports Advantage in Grand Forks on Dec. 21, 2020. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald.
Hunter Pinke works out with a trainer at Altru's Sports Advantage in Grand Forks on Dec. 21, 2020. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald.

Pinke, a native of Wishek, N.D., spent 90 days in Colorado rehabilitating. His time at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., which the Herald chronicled in a three-part series in late February, was cut short in late March due to the emerging coronavirus concern.

After leaving Craig, a hospital that specializes in the recovery of spinal injuries, Pinke returned to North Dakota, where he continued to work toward his mechanical engineering degree at UND. He plans to graduate this spring.

Equipped with a wheelchair-accessible Ford F150 pickup, Pinke navigated his first semester back at UND, albeit with a heavy dose of online learning. He interned with the UND Alumni Association, spearheading a letter-writing effort to thank donors for their gifts.

He was recognized by the athletic department for contributing 100 hours of volunteer community service. He traveled to speak to students at Stephen-Argyle in Minnesota and Dakota Prairie in North Dakota and plenty of places in between to share his story and message.

In early December, Pinke was named a senior captain of the Fighting Hawks’ football team for the unique, upcoming spring season.

“That was one of the biggest honors of my life,” Pinke said.

One of Pinke’s strengths in delivering his message is using what some might consider taboo humor amid otherwise powerful sentiments. That was no different when he was asked to summarize his past year.

“Growth,” he said. “Not in the height category. I went from 6-6 to 4-10. But I’ve grown so much as a person. Adversity brings that growth. I don’t think you can grow to your fullest potential without hitting adversity. Sometimes it brings you to rock bottom but the climb out of rock bottom is where you get stronger, so I’ve been thankful for my adversity because I’ve grown so much as a person, and it’s challenged me. But I’m a competitor. I love to compete and love a good challenge.”