ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When you are nearly a thousand miles from home in a hospital, you want to see and hear from family and friends.
And as 22-year-old University of North Dakota football player Hunter Pinke recovers from a paralyzing spinal cord injury suffered in a skiing accident during the holidays, his family and his home state are delivering some Midwest nice.
With pictures of home, boxes of cards and letters, UND flags and handmade quilts, Hunter Pinke's hospital room in the south Denver suburb of Englewood looks like a page from a North Dakota tourism guide.
One of the items is a pillow with a photo of him with his late best friend Zach Kvalvog, who died in a 2015 crash while driving to a Wisconsin basketball tournament.
“It is probably the one thing that will get me emotional,” Pinke said. “You see the pillow back there and I’ve got my best buddy in the world.”
In addition to all the cards, letters and quilts there are some special notes from people he will not forget, like the late Grantley Johnson, a second grader at West Fargo Freedom Elementary School whose battle against cancer inspired many in the community.
“The thing I saw about Grantley, (is that) no matter his circumstances, he wanted to spread joy and help people,” Pinke said. “His motto was fight like a superhero does, spread joy and help people no matter what they are going through.”
After a long visit to Colorado, Hunter's dad and sisters prepared to return back to North Dakota last week. They are all proud of Hunter, how far he has come and his attitude.
“Hunter is a very motivated and driven person in everything he has done,” said Nathan Pinke, Hunter’s father.
Hunter is close with his little sisters, Anika and Elizabeth, who adore him, and they cherish the long conversations they have by phone when they are apart.
“He calls us by his nicknames,” Elizabeth said. “Mine is Sugar and Anika's is Toots McGee … he tells us about what he did and he asks what we are doing.”
The girls know their big brother has a plan that includes them. Elizabeth and her sister play basketball, and Hunter wants to coach their team next year.
Hunter’s mother, Katie, has not left his side. As her son has recovered, she has witnessed the stamina and progress of a determined young man.
“He is learning all these things to be independent, and we are proud of him,” Katie said. “He is the most positive person I know and his faith is leading my husband and I at times.”
It seems half of North Dakota has been out here to see Hunter, whether its best friends or entire UND teams showing up to cheer him on.
Back home, there have been numerous benefits across the state, with school teams wearing Hunter T-shirts. Hunter, once home, hopes to thank them all and become a mentor to those who may be struggling.
“I have always seen myself in that role. I do not want it to be about me,” he said. “I want it to be about the process and how you get through it; if I can help someone else, that is the goal.”
And through it all, Hunter, who has been a faith leader on his UND football team and across the campus, says it is his faith that gives him so much optimism.
“You lean on it, for sure,” he said. “I don't know anyone going through a trial like this (who) could go through this without faith and a hope for something down the road.”
This story is part of a three-part series on Hunter Pinke, who is recovering in Colorado after a December ski accident left him with a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Part one can be found here. Part three can be found here.