Stabbed Punter Still Lives in Fear

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."

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 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.

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."

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