2 years after a skiing accident left him paralyzed, Hunter Pinke refuses to have 'bad days'
Hunter Pinke's message is one of student-to-student outreach, a reminder that all around us people are suffering, and that a kind word or action in the right moment can change everything.
ASHLEY, N.D. — As a 6-foot-6-inch senior in 2016, the Ashley Public School Gym was Hunter Pinke's domain, his favorite basketball court. On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 4, he was back, this time with an audience of high school students in rapt attention.
“Let's get something clear,” the Wishek native and former South Border Mustang said with a smile, “No, I can't dunk.” He was in a wheelchair.
Two years earlier, two days after Christmas, the University of North Dakota tight end was on his back in the snow at Keystone, Colorado, after a violent collision with another skier and then a tree, paralyzed from the chest down. And that's how it all began.
Hold it, you mean ended, don't you? No, began.
Hunter Pinke's future after his speech in Ashley was an afternoon talk in Napoleon, and from there, Hettinger, where a student recently died by suicide in the classroom.
His message is one of student-to-student outreach, a reminder that all around us people are suffering, and that a kind word or action in the right moment can change everything.
Pinke recently completed a three-week tour of North Dakota schools before he returned to the University of Arizona for his next semester of architectural grad school.
Spend an hour with the charismatic Pinke and you'll believe you can do anything, or something, at least, to make someone's life better, and in the process, your own.
First, let's make another thing clear.
“I'm not a motivational speaker,” Pinke said. And he doesn't live in a van down by the river. In fact, when he was advised that most paraplegics get around in minivans, his response was “not me.”
He drives a black Ford F-150 with hand controls, a lift and a boom to get himself and his wheelchair loaded.
One woman called his talks a ministry, a term Hunter rejects, perhaps as sounding too religious, and he knows that can be a turn-off. Maybe the word shouldn't be so stigmatized or narrowly defined, though.
After all, ministry can come in many ways — a welcome home after a hard day from a slobbering hound, a word of encouragement from out of the blue that you didn't know you needed until it arrived, and heck, it might show up with a man-bun in a wheelchair.
The man bent over his prone body apologetically. “Are you all right?”
“No, I don't think, so,” Pinke said. He'd already tried to get up, at first convinced that he was somehow pinned down, possibly by tree branches, then realizing he wasn't. “Are you a Christian?” he asked the man from Nashville.
“I think we should pray,” Pinke said. “I prayed up on that mountain, and I've had peace ever since. Fear and anxiety hasn't overtaken me.”
After all, it could have been worse, the doctor told him after learning about the footage from the GoPro camera strapped to Pinke's helmet, now dented. Just before he hit the tree, Pinke lowered his head, spine straight, and instead of snapping his neck and making him a quadriplegic or killing him outright, the force crushed the spine in the middle of his chest.
“What made you lower your head at the last minute?” the doctor asked.
“Well, football may have saved your life.”
Pinke explores the old adage, the question, is the glass half full or half empty, only with fresh insight. Every eye in the bleachers is on him. Riveted. The glass becomes a metaphor for life, and his eyes scan the faces knowing that somewhere up there someone needs to hear this message.
If only he'd gotten to Hettinger sooner. Or LaMoure, or any other small town, to light the shadows, to ease the sense of hopelessness and quiet desperation.
His glass may have seemed almost empty, but slowly, drop by drop, it was filled by irritatingly gung-ho nurses, legions of friends and unknowns wearing Pinke Strong shirts in gyms where he'd once been the opposition, by the support of family, donations, prayers and, yes, by more than a few tears.
“If you're thinking of dropping that glass, don't,” he tells that one kid that needs to hear this. “Somehow — I don't know how — but it's going to be refilled.
“I've got a full glass,” he says, “It'd be a shame if I didn't share it.”
He pours some water into an invisible glass. It splashes on the floor.
“I dare you to be a difference-maker,” he says. To reach out to the quiet, unpopular kid. To be a friend. “To get a little uncomfortable.”
Silence. Not a cough. Not a rattle from the bleachers.
“You know what's really uncomfortable?”
He drops the bottle.
Somehow, it gets even quieter.
The doctors said he'd never walk again. He believes he will. It might take 10 or 20 years, he says, but with medical advancements and sheer force of will, who's going to doubt Hunter Pinke? The doctors were wrong about one other thing, too.
“You're going to have good days and bad days,” they insisted.
“No,” he argued. He refused to have bad days. They compromised. They agreed that he could have tough days.
“The thing about a tough day, though,” he said, “is a good day's right around the corner.”
Then come the questions from the bleachers. Does he plan to ski again?
“Got to. The tree won the battle. I need to win the war. I gotta cut that thing down!” He smiles. No, grins.
Has he met with the man he collided with? No, but he thinks he will someday. He bears him no animosity. “He didn't see me, and I didn't see him.”
And finally, the big one, if he could, would he change that day? Would he pause at the top for the photo he was too impatient to wait for? That delay might have changed everything. Would he have stayed out of the deep powder and away from the beatific silence of the pines?
“No. Who am I to mess with God's plan?”
He's competing again, now in wheelchair basketball and road racing with an eye on the Paralympics. He lost the use of his legs, but he gained so much more — glimpses of enlightenment at the age of 24 and a powerful new purpose. For now, Hunter Pinke can't walk. But he's taken flight.