Denial. That's the first reaction. Everything will be alright, you think. But when Hunter Pinke's mom asks for prayers after his skiing accident at Keystone, Colo., something starts gnawing at your insides, and then, when you see the picture of him on a hospital gurney and read his words, “I WILL WALK AGAIN!!” it could break you.

Picture a Viking with longish blonde hair, slightly amiss, 6-foot-5, 243 pounds, unfairly handsome with blue eyes that crinkle above a broad smile that could melt glaciers. Got it? That's who you're praying for.

Now, imagine those prayers as sparrows springing from the snowy plains, dotting a pewter sky. Imagine gazing down from above and seeing entire flocks of them. Holy messengers. Prayers from men who seldom pray, so when these unfamiliar sparrows arrive, the saints look at them in wonder. “Better get the Boss. This must be big.”

Hours pass. A day. News filters out, and finally there's the grim confirmation; Hunter's paralyzed.

Denial. We cling to its soft, comfortable deceptions. His parents wish it were just a bad dream. That they could take his place on that hospital bed, that all those prayers could sweep us back in time. Before.

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My mind flashes to a Wishek hardcourt. Hunter's coach (and uncle) Robbie Lukens, calls a timeout, and as the Mustangs huddle, Hunter listens, attentive, yet serene, amid the bedlam. Another vision bumps that one away, and I watch a pass lofted to the big tight end. If there's a word that falls between gliding and lumbering, it would describe his gait. Galloping, perhaps. But the important thing is, he's got a step, and he catches the pass over his shoulder. It rests in his hands like it's always been there, and then he's knocked violently out-of-bounds. A guy could get hurt playing football.

Elizabeth, Hunter and Anika Pinke at UND football's fan fest in Grand Forks on August 22. Katie Pinke / Forum News Service
Elizabeth, Hunter and Anika Pinke at UND football's fan fest in Grand Forks on August 22. Katie Pinke / Forum News Service

When University of North Dakota football coach Bubba Schweigert, another McIntosh County emigre, recruits Hunter, it's because the kid can play, sure, but it's about character, too. Good kid. Good family. A spiritual leader who leads team prayers and means it. The kid you'd want your daughter to bring home.

I know Hunter mostly from the sidelines, through his parents, teachers, coaches, and peers, but I know him well enough. I know him through the softness that comes into my daughter's eyes when she talks about him. His kindness. The way he encouraged his track teammates during grueling conditioning drills. She laughs, and her eyes reignite, remembering that while the others were near collapse, Hunter barely broke a sweat. “He was so fit!” Then her eyes go soft again. Soft as her voice. “Everyone liked him. Everyone. Some people you meet are just magic. Hunter's one of those people. You knew he was going to do great things.” She still believes that.

We're not surprised to learn that Hunter's praying for the person who collided with him, sending him hurtling into that tree. “I don't want him to feel any guilt,” he says.

We talk about it, the girl with the soft eyes and I, and we wonder, and maybe rage a little inside, at the harsh mystery of it all. I look to the sky, but not for answers.

But look at all the sparrows. So many sparrows.

Note: Hunter's UND family has created a GoFundMe page: www.gofundme.com/f/hunter-pinke-medical-costs

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service.