GRAND FORKS — Just over a year ago, the region watched Hunter Pinke begin rehab and recovery after a life-changing skiing accident in Colorado left him paralyzed.
Shortly before his last final at UND, Pinke is preparing to leave after five years of athletics and academics, working to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.
Not long after learning how to live his new normal following his skiing accident, he came home to North Dakota and quickly realized something.
"From the start, it was, 'What can I do to get better? What can I do to move forward?'" Pinke said. "A lot of people that are in my situation with a spinal cord injury want to be what they used to be. That is a slippery slope. For me, I never ran into that problem. I was like, 'What can I become?'"
For the last few months, Pinke could be found leading his football team to playoffs. He was there for the coin flip and officials meeting, helping coach from the sidelines beside teammates who helped him through the storm.
"The guys have to let you lead; leaders are not much if nobody is following them. For them to let me lead, to be in that role, I am appreciative," Pinke said. "The most special thing in college football is the locker room, the friendships and so for me to come back and get some closure and to write a letter to the guys, this is what it means to me and what you all mean to me. "
It started in the town of Wishek, where Pinke was valedictorian in a high school class of 18. He even knew what words to say then.
"The truth and reality of acceptance is that you and I were never meant to be accepted by this world. We were meant to be different," he recalled from his speech.
Hunter said getting a mechanical engineering degree on top of a long hospitalization and rehab couldn't have been done without his professors.
"(It) goes back to who North Dakotans are," Pinke said. "North Dakota nice ... they want to help a neighbor out."
"I am sure Coach (Bubba) Schweigert would say the same thing: being coachable," said UND engineering professor Joel Ness. "That's what makes him such an outstanding young man."
This spring, on top of the senior projects, football, finals and announcing at high school games, Pinke has been all over the region, talking with young people who are motivated by him.
"People can see my struggle," he said. "They see me, they see my chair, but everyone goes through struggle. Pain is pain, and if I can be an inspiration to one kid — just one — then it is worth it."
Pinke is moving on to the University of Arizona to join their adapted track and field team. His racing wheelchair just arrived, and he is excited to take up the challenge.
"I am so fired up. If you could see my hands, they are clenched," Pinke said. "I want to compete again, make something new."
As part of the team, Pinke has a shot at the international Paralympic games.