N. Colorado punter : Recovery 'tough and scary'

GREELEY, Colo. -- Rafael Mendoza still worries when he hears footsteps and he tenses up if he catches a shadowy figure out of the corner of his eye.

Northern Colorado's punter is struggling to rebound from being stabbed in his kicking leg a month ago, allegedly by a teammate who wanted the starting punting job. Mendoza said he'd like to put the attack behind him, but flashbacks keep reappearing.

Plus, whoever stabbed him is still free.

"It's been tough and scary," Mendoza told The Associated Press. "It's hard for [my family], it's hard for me, it's hard for them wondering what's going to happen. But I know they [the authorities] are doing their job. They're doing everything they possibly can to let justice run its course."

The attack in the parking lot of Mendoza's Evans apartment complex on Sept. 11 drew national attention and comparisons to the Tonya Harding hitman attack on Nancy Kerrigan.

Backup punter Mitch Cozad was accused of stabbing Mendoza in some sort of bid to win the starting job for the Bears. However, prosecutors have dropped a charge of second-degree assault, saying
they need more time to investigate the case and are seeking an accomplice.

Things haven't been easy for Cozad, either. His attorney, Joseph A. Gavaldon, said Cozad has returned home to Wheatland, Wyo., to be with his family and has all but been convicted in the court of public opinion. Cozad is trying to get on with his life, the attorney said, but the threat of charges being refiled at any moment hovers over his head.

"It's an uncomfortable state for Mr. Cozad," said Gavaldon, who advised his client not to talk for this story. "He's in limbo. The waiting has had an affect on him. He's trying to get his life together."

Same with Mendoza. He is looking for a new place to live, one that has a better-lit parking lot.

"When he was there, the person that attacked me -- if it was Mitch or not, whatever -- they were wearing all black and I didn't see them until right at the last second," Mendoza said. "What could I have done to stop him from even stabbing me in the first place?"

Sitting on a bench after practice Thursday, Mendoza brought his hands to his face as he recounted what happened. He pulled up to his apartment complex and was walking away from his car when he turned back to lock it. As he did, Mendoza was hit from behind and stabbed when he tried to fight back.

"It was one of those things where I never was really looking behind my back," Mendoza said. "I never worried about anything. Now, after this happened, every time I get out of my car I look around to see if there's anyone walking around, anybody suspicious."

Asked if he thought it was Cozad, Mendoza nodded.

"With everything that we've found out, I have no doubt it was him," Mendoza said.

Police have said a liquor store employee called police not long after the attack and said two men were removing tape from the license plates of a car nearby. Once removed, the employee saw the license plate number read "8-KIKR," helping lead police to Cozad's family.

According to the affidavit, another kicker on the team told police he provided Mendoza's address to Cozad the week before, thinking he was interested in a rental apartment. That same week, a friend of Cozad's said he "was extremely upset about issues with his football team" and that Cozad told her "to lie to police and to his mother about his whereabouts on the evening of Sept. 11."

"It's shocking," Mendoza said. "I never thought he felt that way about me. Now it's like, 'Why?' What did I ever do to him? It makes me take a different look at life and how I am toward people. I never said anything wrong to him."

Cozad's attorney declined comment when asked if his client had anything to do with the attack.

"There's no case," Gavaldon said.

However the investigation pans out, Mendoza has already forgiven the person responsible.

"You can't hate in your heart," said Mendoza, who received more than 200 e-mails of support from around the country. "He did what he did. He did whatever to his own life, and to mine, but he's going to pay for it. All I can really do is forgive him and move on."

Mendoza was back on the field two weeks after being stabbed and even had a 58-yard punt in his return against Western Illinois. But he said the leg is back to only 70 percent of what it was. He's averaging 38.8 yards on 24 punts this season.

"I've still got a lot to work on," he said. "I'm seeing improvement, but it's slow."

The stabbing struck a muscle in his hamstring and he can't sit down on his right side without discomfort.

"I'm having a lot of complications with that muscle right now," Mendoza said. "Before I got stabbed, coach was working with me going straight up and down the field with my follow through. Now I don't have the flexibility to do that so I have to cross my leg, which he was trying to get me away from. It's less consistent."

Gavaldon, Cozad's attorney, said he isn't surprised the investigation is slow to develop or that the initial charge was dropped.

"The investigation didn't produce what they expected," he said. "So they put themselves in a position where they had more time [to file more charges]. Mr. Cozad lies in wait. He has no control."

Mendoza said he's been feeling down lately, but he's attempting to get back to the trusting, smiling person he was before the stabbing. He said he may seek counseling after the season.

"I'm trying to get back to my life and not let this stop me," he said. "I'm sure I can. It's going to take some time."