DENVER — Hunter Pinke's mother wanted people to know this about her son.
"We were sitting with him and asked, 'What specifically do you want us to pray about on your behalf?' He said, 'I want you to pray for the person who collided with me. I don't want him to feel guilty,'" Katie Pinke said. "And then he said, 'I hope I can meet him someday.'"
Katie relayed the story over the phone from Hunter's room in a Denver-area hospital, her voice cracking. Hunter lay in a nearby bed, immobilized following a skiing accident that left him without the use of his legs.
A 22-year-old junior tight end on the University of North Dakota football team, Hunter suffered a severed spinal cord when he collided with another skier on a mountain in Keystone, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 27, and was thrown head-first into a tree. Thanks to a helmet he was wearing, Hunter didn't suffer a head injury (not even a concussion), but his spinal cord was severed in the thoracic (mid) region of his spine. He has movement and full feeling in his arms, chest, shoulders and above. He has no movement or feeling in his lower extremities.
Hunter's injury occurred between the T6 and T7 vertebrae. There was heavy leakage of spinal fluid when the cord severed. Doctors are currently trying to stabilize his T5-T9 vertebrae.
"My words to him were, 'You have a future, it's just not the future you thought,'" his mother said. "We have to build that future. We have to build a new life for him."
Katie wanted to share the story of Hunter's prayer request to illustrate that what happened was an accident, a terrible combination of timing and circumstance, and that her son, his life drastically altered a few days ago, rejects anger or bitterness and is already looking forward.
"One of the doctors at Craig Hospital, a top hospital in spinal cord injury rehabilitation which is near here in Englewood and where Hunter will be going, is really encouraged by Hunter because he is young, he's an athlete, he's very goal-oriented and he's very driven," Katie said. "When he was 6 years old he said he was going to be an all-state basketball player. Six years old. And he made all-state twice for a school that never made it to state and that didn't get a lot of media attention. So the doctors really like that about him. He's already setting goals for himself for his rehabilitation. That's good, but we have to remember we're only on Day 3 of this and we're still very much in an hour-to-hour mode. We need to have a few more wins in terms of stabilization and recovery and we'll go from there."
Hunter, a multiple-sport star from Wishek, N.D., who played high school sports at South Border, was on a Christmas vacation in Colorado with the Wanzek family of Jamestown, N.D. Noah Wanzek, a top receiver for UND who just completed his senior season, is Hunter's best friend.
Hunter and Noah were making their first run of the day on an easy slope as a warmup when another skier cut across Hunter's path and there was a collision. Hunter, who is 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds and an experienced skier, hit a tree with such force that his helmet was dented, but he didn't lose consciousness. He was airlifted off the mountain to Frisco, Colo., before being taken by ambulance to St. Anthony's Hospital in Lakewood, where he underwent eight hours of surgery.
Katie, who works for Forum Communications Co. as the publisher of Agweek, and her husband, Nathan, were in North Dakota when they got the news of Hunter's accident. They drove from Wishek to Fargo to catch a flight to Denver, which went from Hector International Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul and then to Colorado.
"It took us awhile to get to Denver and I can't say enough about how the UND football family was there for Hunter. Noah's dad, Tracy, stayed with him the whole time until we got there. There were other friends and family members there. He was never alone," Katie said. "Bubba Schweigert (UND's coach) and the football team did all sorts of things on his behalf. It really has been a UND team family and that has been so important during this."
Once the Pinkes got to Denver, Noah Wanzek slept in Hunter's room overnight to give Katie a chance to catch a few hours of sleep.
Hunter, a fourth-year student, carries a 3.5 grade-point average in mechanical engineering. His mother said he wants to continue and get his degree. That is one goal he's already set out.
In the meantime, there is a long road of recovery and rehabilitation. It will be hard work. It will not be inexpensive.
"As we build a new life for Hunter, we are going to need a lot of things. We are so encouraged by the GoFundMe account that was set up. That's been a point of encouragement for Hunter, too. He's always asking, 'How much is in it now? Who is donating?'" Katie said. "That and the social media comments and words of encouragement he's been getting are really important. Those are points of encouragement for him. We'll spend time reading the comments on social media and he enjoys seeing who is commenting and praying for him. He said, 'Wow, I think the whole state of North Dakota is praying for me.'"
The GoFundMe account, "Hunter Pinke's Medical Costs," raised nearly $79,000 as of Monday afternoon. You can donate by clicking on this link.
Also, a benefit account for Hunter has been set up with First Community Credit Union. You can donate at any FCCU location.
"There will be good that comes from this tragedy. We just have to make sure to make it happen," Katie said.
Hunter and the Pinkes are deeply faithful people. While they accept what has happened, they haven't stopped hoping and praying for a better outcome.
"We respect and believe in medical information and the medical reports," Katie said. "We are also going to pray for a miraculous healing because we believe in that."