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Hunter Pinke: Making the world a better place

Posted by Annie Bennett, Co-Editor 11/21/2022 10:47:43 AM

When Hunter Pinke was a fifth-grade student in Wishek, he dreamed of becoming a college basketball star at the University of North Dakota (UND) like his grandpa, Fred. “Growing up in a small town in North Dakota, you are a big fish in a little pond,” says Pinke. “I tried to push myself to not only be the best player in the town or district, but in the state, to have a shot to play at UND.”

However, dreams change and life happens, and in the fall of 2016, Pinke ended up playing tight end on UND’s football team instead. Three years later, a major event in Pinke’s life again altered the course of his future dreams.

 

The Accident

In December 2019, Pinke was skiing with his friend in Keystone, Colo. “It was my first run of the day, I was skiing in the trees, and when I came out another skier cut me off and we collided,” says Pinke. “I hit a tree headfirst at a high speed.”

With four-years’ experience as a division one college football player, Pinke says he is no stranger to hitting things hard. “My first reaction when I came to was ‘I am going to be sore,’” he says. “The next thought I had was to get up.”

After every tackle or every fall, he noted he had always got up, however, this time he felt like he was pinned down. “I thought there has to be a tree pinning me down or something on my legs. I remember turning around and looking and seeing my legs there and nothing on them, but I couldn’t move them. That first realization of ‘I think I might be paralyzed’ was a really scary moment.”

The other skier came to Pinke’s side and called 911, but Pinke had an important question for him. “I asked the other skier if he was a Christian and he said ‘yes,’” says Pinke. “At the scariest moment of my life I prayed on the mountain, and I can honestly say from that moment on, I have peace about this situation. I think that is pretty unique and uncommon for those that go through it as well. I really had a comfort that everything was going to be ok, and life would go on.” 

 

The Injury

Ski patrol arrived and assessed Pinke, who was life flighted off the mountain to the hospital in Frisco, Colo., and later transported by ambulance to a Denver area hospital where he underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair his back. Pinke’s T4 to T9 vertebrae were shattered and his spinal cord injury occurred at the T6 - T7 level. “I have a few rods and a couple screws holding my back together,” he says. “I am a complete paraplegic, meaning I have damage to my spinal cord. I have no feeling, no function below my injury line - chest down.”

Pinke spent just over a week in the hospital before moving 15 minutes away to Craig Hospital, one of the top 10 rehabilitation facilities in the world, which specializes in traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. He was an in-patient resident for two months and spent just a couple of weeks as an out-patient resident before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In March 2020, he moved back to North Dakota.

 

The Attitude

“The days and weeks after, there really wasn’t much pity party, I didn’t allow it,” says Pinke. “I focused on ‘this is the hand I was dealt, and now, what can I make of it.’”

He credits his positive attitude to his football background and his UND football head coach Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert. “His mantra is ‘hang your hat on day-by-day,’ meaning don’t worry about tomorrow or yesterday, focus on today and what you can do to get better.”

Pinke has embodied this mantra following his accident and says life has gone pretty well since.

In May 2020, Pinke went back to UND to finish his degree. “I took eight credits in summer school and had a 30-hour-a-week internship,” he says. “I got back into the groove pretty quickly.”

“One door closed and from that 100 doors opened,” he says. “My situation may be unique, but my life is not really changed. I still do everything I used to do before my injury, I just do it in a different way.”

He says before his accident, he would walk to class, and after the accident, he would roll to class. Before his accident, he drove his pick-up, and after his accident, he still drives his pick-up. He used to drive with his feet and now he drives with his hands.

 

The Support

“North Dakota is so incredible. It was unbelievable the amount of support and love I received from North Dakota,” says Pinke. “When tragedy hits, nowhere else in the country helps neighbors like North Dakotans.”

The love and support that came from around the state was amazing, he says. “It doesn’t matter what color green you wear on Saturday; they are going to care for you. You can disagree with someone on a Monday night at a school board meeting and if you need help on Tuesday morning, that same person will be there to help you out.”

“I am beyond proud to be from North Dakota because the people that I get to call my neighbors, call my friends and call my family - I really think they are the best people in the world,” Pinke continues. “They are the most genuine, caring, loving people in the world, and I have traveled all across the world, and I still think that.”

 

The Motivation

Shortly after the accident, an inspirational tweet on Twitter from a local school caught Pinke’s attention on a tough day. In the tweet, a local elementary school did a “Pinke Promise” campaign and the entire school wore green, held up signs and took a picture in the gym. “It really lifted me up on some tough days. To see stuff like that, I was like, ‘holy cow, I got the whole support of this school and I have never met these people.’”

In the fall of 2020, the school asked Pinke to talk to both the elementary and high school. “I said, ‘Of course! You guys did this for me, and I would love to come meet you guys!’”

Pinke thought it was a one-time thing to say thank you, but that December, Pinke received a call from another school to do three speeches the next day for the elementary, middle and high schools. After he spoke to the high school, Pinke says he remembers quite vividly a popular boy asking to speak to him. “He told me how my story really hit home and really shared his heart, and he said he had no idea how much he needed this today,” Pinke says. “I thought if this kid, the top dog of the school, was needing this, what about the person that is forgotten about.”

Because of these comments, Pinke thought maybe his story is made for other people and sharing his story snowballed from there. He has since spoken across the country to more than 100,000 people. Pinke has three different keynotes he offers titled “No Bad Days,” “Dream, Set, Go,” and “The Strength of Struggle.”

 

The Message

Pinke is extremely passionate about his presentations and says the “No Bad Days” keynote is the most popular. “The feedback I get on how it affects people and the hope it brings them is what keeps me going and wanting to get out and share it even more,” says Pinke. “If I can have an effect on one person in the room, just one, if I can make them think a little differently about a situation, if I can give them a little bit of hope, if I can give them one more day where they keep on going, if I can give them one drip of water in their glass, [telling them] don’t give up, you can still hold water, you have purpose. If I can do that for one person in every gym I go to, it is all worth it. It is so satisfying that my story can have an effect and help your story out. Holy cow, how lucky am I that I have that platform.”

He adds he isn’t a motivational speaker, but says his story is about inspiration. “If I can inspire one person to make a change that impacts the rest of their life, that’s what I am here for.”

Pinke says his biggest message is about appreciating life and everyone’s purpose. “Everyone has a purpose, you may not have found it yet, but everyone has a purpose. If you are still here, if you are still breathing, if you have a choice, that means you are loved and have a purpose.”

 

The Future

“Life changes,” says Pinke, who is currently getting his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Arizona and playing wheelchair basketball. “My dreams have changed but my moral and drive underneath has never changed. My route has changed, but my dream of wanting to make an impact and having fun while doing it hasn’t changed.”

When it comes to the rest of life, he is taking it day-by-day. “There is only one person who knows what my future holds and he’s living up in heaven,” says Pinke. “I can guarantee I am going to live life to the fullest. I went on a date with death and came back. Life is pretty precious to me. I don’t take any morning for granted and I am going to have fun while doing it. I am going to work hard, and strive to make the world a better place one person at a time, one relationship at a time, one day at a time.”

For more information on Hunter Pinke and his keynote presentations, visit hunterpinke.com.

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