Katie Hnida, the first woman to score in a Division I-A college football game, is doing just fine. I, on the other hand, am not.I am amazed at her confidence, stunned at how peaceful she seems. This, I have read, all comes after a torturous journey. She was harassed, raped and doubted. She was marginalized and discounted. Resurrection wasn't easy, either.
I am wrestling with the enormity of her story. She has done this before. I have not. Hnida, a former walk-on kicker at Colorado and New Mexico, has shared her saga with thousands, most notably in the recent release of her autobiography, "Still Kicking: My Journey as the First Woman to Play Division One College Football."As I interview her, I am feeling things I don't want to feel. I am remembering an incident from my own past that I don't want to remember. When Hnida sat down in December 2005 to begin writing the 277-page book -- which details the horrific harassment she experienced during her two years at Colorado -- she had nightmares as she summoned the pain she systematically had buried. I am fearful about what I will dream about when our interview is over. I will not put our experiences on the same level, though. My trauma lasted a few minutes. Hers, two years. She says she was raped by a teammate and trusted friend at Colorado in 2000. She also withstood being terrorized by a stalker (not a teammate). Players exposed their genitals to her as a sick joke. She was groped in team huddles after practices. And among other childish pranks, footballs were thrown at her head. Not typical college memories, for sure. I could turn to my mother, a strong woman who also was sexually abused. Hnida couldn't turn to anyone, especially her coach, Gary Barnett, who to this day claims ignorance of her harassment -- ignorance Hnida contradicts in her book. She never told Barnett about the rape, but her father spoke with Barnett about the harassment after Hnida decided to leave Colorado. When Dave Hnida told Barnett about backup quarterback Zac Colvin calling his daughter a particularly nasty name, Katie says Barnett's response was: "He's from Texas. You've got to expect that." "We felt like we did everything for Katie Hnida," Barnett told me on the phone this week. He said he hasn't read Hnida's book and hasn't spoken to her in six years. "We tried to be as accepting as we could. Nothing was ever said to me regarding these feelings she had. When I read about it [in the newspaper], that was the first time I heard about it." Barnett survived not only Hnida's allegations but those of other women who alleged similar abuse, and a recruiting scandal laced with sex, at Colorado before he was fired last year. He left with $3 million and little credibility. The lasting memory of Barnett will be what he told reporters in February 2004 when asked whether his players respected Hnida. "It's obvious Katie was not very good," he said in that infamous sound bite. "She was awful. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it." Hnida never pressed charges against her attacker because, like the rest of us, she saw the Kobe Bryant rape case. I know that helpless feeling all too well. I told police in 1988 that I had scratched my attacker, so there was some evidence, but they were uninterested in pursuing an attempted rape charge against a man with a lengthy drug history. Although Hnida came forward before Bryant was accused, she was still mulling legal action during Bryant's pretrial hearing. The dismissal of Bryant's case and the subsequent character attacks on his accuser convinced Hnida not to pursue anything. To this day, she has never named her attacker. Mine is dead.
"I haven't actually crossed paths with any of the ones who gave me a really hard time," Hnida said. "There is definitely a lot of them who don't like the fact that I came forward or don't believe me. It was just a part of my life that was so terrible that anything that brings up memories from it, hurts."Miraculously, despite all she endured, Hnida's dream of playing college football survived. She found acceptance at New Mexico. She learned to trust again. And on Aug. 30, 2003, she made history when she converted two PATs for the Lobos in a victory over Texas State. But playing college football was never quite the same. Hnida was never the kicker she was at Chatfield High in Littleton, Colo., where she was named one of the 20 Most Influential Teens in America by Teen People. It is hard trying to be the best when every day feels like the worst. "When I got in and kicked the history-making extra point I can't watch those [highlights]," Hnida said. "My kicks are not what I consider to be good kicks for me. Yeah, they went through the uprights and that's what's important. But, you know, I wanted to be kicking as well as I could be. I wanted to have those suckers as high as they were supposed to be and grooving the ball. For me, kicking is as natural as breathing. When I got out on that football field, it was like, 'Wow, this is just what I'm meant to do.' Having that kind of taken away and having my kicking style get all screwed up, that was a really, really difficult thing for me. One of the hardest things is being robbed of something that was internally mine. It seemed like it was untouchable, but it got affected." Untouchable, but affected -- that's a good way to put it. "Obviously, rape is the most underreported violent crime in America," Hnida said. "But the number of women who don't tell anyone about it -- and I know because I was one of those women for a little while -- I know why you don't tell people. There is a huge stigma attached to being a rape victim. Don't hold this in yourself. There are people and resources. I hate to see the pain and the suffering in some of these women's eyes. At the same time, that's what's been great about being able to tell my story. You don't have to let a rape define you. It sometimes can feel as if it's going to control your life, but it is entirely possible to have a healthy, full life after something that horrific happens." Hnida, now 25, lives in New York City because it is easier for her to manage her speaking engagements and book tour from there. She still loves sports just as much as she ever did. It is difficult for her to watch Colorado games, but she remains devoted to her Denver Broncos, even though she has taken ownership of the New York Giants. She wants to be a sportscaster someday. Big-city living suits her. But she has one major issue with the Big Apple. "Man, is it hard to find goal posts in Manhattan," Hnida said. Jemele Hill, a Page 2 columnist and writer for ESPN the Magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.