Stabbed Punter Still Lives in Fear

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."

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