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Friday, August 10, 2007
Northern Colorado punter relieved after attacker found guilty

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

University of Northern Colorado senior punter Rafael Mendoza was in the team's weight room Thursday morning, standing under a squat machine, preparing his legs for the upcoming season, when the call came in.

Nearly 11 months after he was attacked outside his college apartment, left with a stab wound in his kicking leg that ran 5 inches deep, the jury had reached a verdict in the case against his former teammate, Mitch Cozad.

Rafael Mendoza
Rafael Mendoza can move on with his senior season now that Mitch Cozad's trial is behind him.

Mendoza had fully prepared for this, showing up for his scheduled workout to get his mind off things and yet strategically placing his cell phone in a nearby hallway in hopes it would find reception if the district attorney's office called.

But when it did, and the caller explained that the jury was ready with a verdict, the nerves set in. Roughly a half-hour later, after a shower and a change of clothes, Mendoza was in the courtroom listening as a jury of six men and six women said they found Cozad not guilty of attempted first-degree murder.

"And that's when things really got nerve-wrecking," Mendoza told ESPN.com. "I thought, 'This guy might get off scot-free. He tried to kill me and he's going to get away with it."

Mendoza held his mom's hand. His fiancée's hand. He listened. On the second charge, second-degree assault, carrying a prison term of five to 16 years, the jury found Cozad guilty.

For Mendoza, it was a moment of relief. For Cozad, it was the continuation of a nightmare. And for the history of sports in our country, it was a dark moment. A jury had officially found one athlete guilty of stabbing a teammate in hopes of injuring that teammate and taking his job.

It was beyond Nancy and Tonya. Beyond anything Jerry Springer could dig up. It was the absolute opposite of the values sports are supposed to instill.

"It's just over the top," said Weld (Colorado) County District Attorney Ken Buck, a former college punter himself. "Frankly, if we want to get philosophical, the whole country has gone over the top. Obviously this guy is different. Not everybody is like Mitch Cozad. But I believe he is a symptom of the pressure we put on our athletes today. I have no question about that."

From the Beginning
ESPN.com has been following the story of the stabbing and other incidents involving the University of Northern Colorado football team since last season. Wayne Drehs' series of stories includes an extensive look at Rafael Mendoza's rehabilitation from the knife wounds in the weeks after the attack.

FEAR AND FOOTBALL: Rafael Mendoza struggles to come to grips with an attempt on his life.
WHEN TEAMMATES ATTACK: Should we be surprised by the alleged teammate sabotage at Northern Colorado?
TEAM TURMOIL: A closer look at the University of Northern Colorado, a Division I-AA team that has seen plenty of trouble in recent months.

Buck argued during the case that Cozad was obsessed with becoming the starting punter and obsessed with meeting his mother's lofty expectations. The Dodge Charger that Cozad drove, registered to his mom in Wheatland, Wyo., carried the license plate, "8-KIKR," a reference to Cozad's number and position.

"It was obvious that Rafael Mendoza was by far the better punter," Buck told the jury. "Everyone came to the same conclusion except the defendant. The defendant could not accept the fact that he was inferior and he devised a plan to do off the field what he couldn't get done on the field."

During the case, some of the most damaging evidence came from Northern Colorado student Angela Vogel, who was characterized by the prosecution as Cozad's girlfriend and the defense as just a friend. In a video shown during the case, Vogel revealed to police a series of text messages Cozad sent her while she was interviewing with them on Sept. 12. They included statements like, "we were not apart between 8 and 12" and "please be strong for me did u say we got food?"

Former Northern Colorado kicker David Dyches also testified that Cozad was obsessed with becoming the starter.

"He kept asking if I thought he'd be the starting punter," Dyches told the jury. "He also kept asking me, 'What if Rafael gets hurt? Do you think I'd be the starter?'"

Cozad never took the stand in the case. Defense attorney Andy Gavaldon called three witnesses, centering his argument around the fact that it was Kevin Aussprung, another student living in the same dorm as Cozad, who stabbed Mendoza.

"The person who stabbed Rafael Mendoza is not on trial in this case," Gavaldon told the jury. In his own testimony, Aussprung adamantly denied he was the attacker.

It's just over the top. Frankly, if we want to get philosophical, the whole country has gone over the top. Obviously this guy is different. Not everybody is like Mitch Cozad. But I believe he is a symptom of the pressure we put on our athletes today. I have no question about that.

Weld (Colorado) County District Attorney Ken Buck

Phone messages left for Gavaldon on Thursday went unreturned. After the verdict was read, he told reporters in Colorado his reaction was, "absolute disappointment" and that he intended to appeal. "This is not over," he told Cozad.

Buck said Cozad's family responded to the verdict by heckling him after the proceedings, yelling that he was a "terrible person" for prosecuting their son and insisting that Cozad had passed a polygraph test prior to the case. Polygraph results are inadmissible in Colorado courts.

"I'm used to it," Buck said. "At least they didn't throw tomatoes."

While Cozad's family protested the verdict, the 20 members of Mendoza's family in attendance gathered in a victim's witness room to pray for the defendant.

"We prayed for his family. We asked God to help Mitch through this," Mendoza said. "He made a mistake and he has to pay for it, but hopefully he'll resolve any issues he has in prison and won't come out the same person he was going in."

Mendoza added that his family was disappointed at what they perceived as the Cozads staring them down when they walked out of court Thursday.

"I understand your grandson, nephew or whatever is on trial and his life is on the line," Mendoza said. "I understand they're angry. But there's no reason to be angry at us. I didn't do anything wrong."

The juxtaposition of the two reactions wasn't lost on the district attorney.

"Just look at these two families," Buck said. "You have wonderful values and crappy values in the same case. And in both instances, it doesn't look like the apple fell very far from the tree."

Though Mendoza knows there will be an appeal and he has not yet decided about a civil suit, Thursday marked the beginning of the end of this saga for him. He has long ago moved out of the college apartment where the attack happened and is no longer afraid to go out at night.

But at the same time, he says, life will never be the same. He still looks over his shoulder. He still prepares for the worst. If he goes out with his dog at night, he does so with his fiancée's pepper spray.

"Even though this was punter-on-punter, a seemingly random thing, it's taught me to be aware," Mendoza said. "Anyone can be mugged, anyone can be carjacked."

Thursday afternoon, after a celebratory lunch with his family, the senior stepped onto the football field for the team's second full practice of the 2007 season.

There, he said, teammates and coaches pulled him aside, offering congratulations for the guilty verdict, apologies for the not guilty verdict, while explaining that they were happy that this was finally over and they could all move on.

During one week last season, Buck said, his office called 86 different players and coaches for interviews, completely ruining a week of practice. The Bears, who play in the Big Sky Conference, finished 1-10 in 2006.

"We're proud to have Rafael Mendoza as part of our team," coach Scott Downing said in a prepared statement. "He has shown tremendous courage through the past year."

Mendoza, who is currently sixth on the school's all-time list for career punting with a 39.4-yard average, said his leg still isn't quite normal. Though it doesn't bother him when he punts, it's sore the days after he kicks and it's sore if he sits in one position too long, such as in class.

But he's ready to try and move on.

"It's my senior year, it's my last year and my last chance to show everybody what I can do," Mendoza said. "Now with all this attention, I want to show everyone that I have the ability to be one of the best. I want to show off my talent."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.