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Sunday, November 5, 2006
Updated: November 7, 9:56 AM ET
Stabbed punter still lives in fear

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

GREELEY, Colo. -- Resting his armpits on his crutches, holding a plate of chicken and vegetables in the kitchen of his mother's suburban Denver home, Rafael Mendoza stood frozen.

This was the phone call he had been waiting for. This was the moment when life would begin the trip back to normal. Two nights earlier, the University of Northern Colorado junior punter was returning home from study hall when he was attacked outside his college apartment. A passerby scared the assailant away, but not before the damage was done: a baseball-sized knot on the side of his neck, and a gash five inches deep in the back of his right thigh.

For the soft-spoken kid who never met an enemy, the psychological wounds had run deep. There were the sleepless nights, the upside-down stomach and the questions. Now police investigators were talking to his mom. As she hung up the phone and turned toward him, he knew he would finally get an answer.

An answer he would never forget.

"Honey," she began, "they said it was the other punter."

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The chicken, the rice, the vegetables, the plate, it all crashed to the floor. Mendoza's body shook. He hobbled to the living room, collapsed on the couch, looked to the ceiling and began to cry.

"You could just look at his face and see all the pain," Florence Mendoza said. "His just went into shock."

Back in Greeley, an hour north of Florence's home in Thornton, police had charged 21-year-old Mitchell Cozad, a walk-on reserve punter from Wheatland, Wyo., with second-degree assault. According to police documents, Cozad, in his first season at Northern Colorado, had grown jealous of Mendoza's role as the starting punter and, on Sept. 11, attacked Mendoza with the goal of taking his job.

It was Tonya and Nancy all over again. Only it wasn't. The Olympic figure skaters were bitter rivals, enemies. Mitch Cozad and Rafael Mendoza were teammates. Friends, or so Mendoza thought. They wore the same jersey, donned the same colors, played for the same school. Two weeks before the attack, Mendoza had taken Cozad and the other kickers to Texas Roadhouse for dinner. His treat. He had asked Cozad to be his roommate. Cozad turned him down.

Now, nearly two months after the incident, Cozad is scheduled to appear in court Monday to face charges of attempted first-degree murder as well as the original assault charge. Though several attempts by ESPN.com to reach Cozad, his parents and attorney Andy Gavaldon were unsuccessful, Gavaldon told The Associated Press his client is "frightened, apprehensive and concerned."

Mendoza, meanwhile, knows those emotions all too well. He's still battling the physical, mental and emotional scars from that night. The stabbing left a gash five inches deep, causing muscle and nerve damage. But the mental trauma appears worse.

Rafael Mendoza
It's still a stretch for Rafael Mendoza to live a normal life after the attack.
As he sits on the couch of his apartment, his fiancée Meghan Gregory by his side, Mendoza jumps at every door that's opened, every voice that's heard. He refuses to leave his apartment at night. If he's returning home from study hall and the sun has set, he calls ahead so Meghan can stand on the balcony and watch him walk inside.

"The hardest part is seeing how it's changed him," Gregory said. "It's hard seeing him get out of the car and look around and be nervous. He just isn't in that comfort zone that he was before. One day he's good and the next day, well, not so good. It's sad."

Just outside Mendoza's apartment door, down a flight of stairs, is the site of the scariest moment of his life. Every time he arrives home, a place that should bring solace and comfort, he relives the blow to the back of the head, the scuffle to fight off his attacker and the burning sensation of the knife carving into his thigh. He sees the pool of blood around his shoes, the flashing lights of the ambulance and the horrified look on his mother's face in the emergency room, on her birthday no less.

"My biggest fear is [the alleged attacker] is out on bail," Mendoza said. "His life is already ruined -- there's nothing left to lose. And if he was crazy enough to do it in the first place, what's going to stop him from finishing the job?"

"The hardest part is seeing how it's changed him. It's hard seeing him get out of the car and look around and be nervous. He just isn't in that comfort zone that he was before. One day he's good and the next day, well, not so good. It's sad."
-- Meghan Gregory, Rafael Mendoza's fiancee
Mendoza tried to get out of his lease and move to a new apartment, preferably to a home with a garage, where he could pull his car in and shut the door behind him, but his landlord refused to cooperate. The incident didn't happen in his apartment, Mendoza was told, and leaving early would constitute a violation of his lease.

Meanwhile, Geraldo has called. Greta has called. So, too, has "Good Morning America." They all want to know what happened. Two weeks ago, when the Weld County District Attorney added the attempted first-degree murder to Cozad's second-degree assault charge, Mendoza said the buzz started again. His classmates again began pointing him out and whispering as he walked by on campus. Some openly asked if the attempted murder charge wasn't a tad, well, over-the-top.

Mendoza can't go into specifics because the case is pending, but he told ESPN.com that once the facts come out, he's confident the attempted murder charge will stand up.

"I don't believe he was going for my leg," Mendoza said. "I don't believe he just wanted to hurt me."

Motherly Intuition
In the emergency room that night, Mendoza's mind was spinning. He couldn't figure out who, or why. Did someone want to steal his car, a Jeep Cherokee? Did someone want his rims? His upgraded stereo system?

His mom had another thought. During the drive on the way to the hospital, Florence told her two daughters: "I just hope it wasn't the backup punter." Mendoza's daughters couldn't believe what they were hearing. Earlier, when they called their father, who was away on a hunting trip, to tell him what had happened, he said the exact the same thing.

Mitch Cozad
Backup punter Mitch Cozad has been charged with attempted murder of the starter, Rafael Mendoza.
"There was no reason why, no clues, no nothing," Florence Mendoza said. "It's just that my son has no reason somebody should want anything that he has. He doesn't have enemies. So I don't know why, but that's what came to my heart -- this prayer that it wasn't the backup punter."

Though Florence says she kept the thought from her son, Rafael said his mother mentioned it to him on the drive back to Thornton. Right there, in the car, he said, he defended every one of the kickers -- Cozad included.

"I just told her to stop it," he said. "It was crazy."

Mendoza has had little trouble grasping how bizarre this seems to the rest of the world, this business of one teammate allegedly stabbing another in hopes of taking his job. It's the reason he wakes up every morning feeling as if his foundation has been rattled by a 7.5 earthquake.

"Teammates aren't supposed to do that," Mendoza said. "This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen. Those are the guys you're supposed to be able to trust."

In between classes, practices and the endless phone calls, Mendoza can't keep his mind from racing back to that night and analyzing every exchange he ever had with Cozad. What has he come up with? Not much. According to an arrest warrant affidavit, place-kicker David Dyches reported that Cozad had an "extreme hatred, competition and jealousy" for Mendoza.

"He just wanted that job so bad," Dyches told ESPN.com.

Mendoza said he never felt that from Cozad. But he remembers a time in fall practice when senior defensive back and emergency punter Jason Hildenbrand joined the other kickers and Cozad threw a fit.

"Mitch would get angry, real angry," Mendoza said. "He wouldn't want him there. And now I'd think to myself, 'If he thought that about Hildenbrand, what in the world did he think about me?'"

Cozad, a sophomore who last year was a walk-on at Wyoming, joined Northern Colorado in the fall to compete with Mendoza for the starting punting job. But throughout fall camp, coach Scott Downing and several Northern Colorado players said, Mendoza was clearly the better punter. According to police documents, during the week of Sept. 4, the week after the season opener against UC Davis, Cozad asked the coaches how he was doing. They explained Mendoza was outperforming him.

"I don't believe he was going for my leg. I don't believe he just wanted to hurt me."
-- Rafael Mendoza
It was later that week when freshman place-kicker Michael York said Cozad asked him for Mendoza's address. That Thursday, Sept. 7, Mendoza was returning to his apartment when a strange man in black sweatpants and a tightly pulled black hoodie walked swiftly toward him across the parking lot.

"I was scared," Mendoza said.

Without seeing the man, Meghan, knowing her fiancée had just pulled in, yelled from the balcony that he should hurry up if he was hungry. Dinner was hot.

Upon hearing Meghan, Mendoza said the man stopped about 8 feet away, turned and started stretching like he was going for a jog. He thought it might be a wrestler, since a lot of athletes live near his apartment, but why was he acting so strangely? Why was his hoodie pulled so tightly?

Now it all makes sense.

"It was the same guy in the same outfit as the night I got stabbed," Mendoza said. "I think he was going to do it right then and there. I got lucky."

Football as therapy
Though emergency room doctors told Mendoza they weren't sure when -- or if -- he would punt again, he returned to the field 12 days after the attack. He'd missed the Bears' Sept. 16 game at Texas State, but was determined not to let one man's violent act keep him off the field.

"My determination was simple," Mendoza said. "[The attacker] wanted to take everything away from me. Every game I missed he got what he wanted. And I didn't want to give him that satisfaction."

Rafael Mendoza and Mitch Cozad
Mendoza, right, and Cozad at a Northern Colorado practice before the stabbing.
Now, there is truly only one place he can go to get away from all this madness, one place he can go where he's treated the same way he was before he was stabbed in that dark parking lot on Sept. 11.

The football field.

There, he's just one of the guys, a kicker who messes around in practice, winning hit-the-crossbar challenges against the other kickers. It is on the football field where Mendoza is able to escape his nightmares and leave that fateful night behind.

He feels safe on the field. Here, it's all about focus. Wait for the snap. Catch it. Kick it. Run.

"That's the only time I can escape it all," Mendoza said. "It's just like the good old days, kicking, punting, being with my teammates. I'm just one of the guys. Not the guy."

When he needs a pick-me-up, all Mendoza needs to do is log on to his MySpace page, where punters, cheerleaders, quarterbacks and other college kids have gathered to encourage him in his recovery. He says he's needed every one of the 400-plus friend requests he's received to pull him through.

There are two games left in Northern Colorado's season (the Bears are 1-8) and for now, Mendoza is running on autopilot. When the season comes to an end and life settles down a bit, he plans to visit with a counselor and get some help. He says he doesn't know how counselors work and he isn't sure what counseling will do for him, but he knows he has nothing to lose. Maybe it will help him sleep. Maybe it will get rid of the nightmares. Or maybe, most of all, it will help him feel normal again.

That's all Rafael Mendoza wants.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.