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Jack the Kicker

Considering the rewards of athletic success, is it surprising that a college punter is accused of hacking his way up the depth chart?

In a strange waythe events of last week, when a reserve punter at the University of NorthernColorado was arrested for allegedly stabbing the starter in his kicking leg andthen fleeing the crime scene in a car with the license plates 8-KIKR, arereassuring. Not because they show just how far somebody might go in the questfor athletic success--the news of any week demonstrates those depths. In factthe one thing we've learned is just how fragile a commodity sportsmanship hasbecome as the pressure to succeed, and the rewards for doing so, have grown sooutlandish. What's reassuring about the case, in a strange way of course, isthat it doesn't happen more often.

The case: MitchCozad, a 21-year-old washout from the University of Wyoming, walked on at UNC,one NCAA level down, this fall but still failed to get any traction in hispursuit of a kicking job. Cozad had never even been first team in high school,back in the small farm town of Wheatland, Wyo. ("Think Friday NightLights," a Wheatland Bulldogs cheerleader suggested last week.) But hisdreams never seemed to suffer for a withering reality. Back home they remembera kid whose mother "spent ungodly amounts sending him to kicking andpunting camps," who had separate shoes for kicking and punting and who kepta herd of his own footballs at practice. They say his mother, Suzanne, filmedall his kicks at practice and would "bad-mouth" players ahead of him onthe depth chart. (Cozad's father does not live with him.) Once, when Cozad wasswitched from kicker to lineman, he hid the kicking tee.

Cozad, who missedhis only game-winning field goal attempt at Wheatland ("He was never thefull-time kicker," an assistant coach there said), did not mistake the lackof interest from major colleges as being in any way predictive of his DivisionI success. He walked on at Wyoming in 2006, but even though he was the onlypunter on the team's spring roster, he was replaced as soon as a junior collegetransfer was brought in. "There's just some situations, politicalsituations, that are tough to deal with," Cozad said before leaving for theDivision I-AA Bears.

His high schoolcoach, Paul Miller, thought Cozad was a good kid, with a tremendous work ethicbut definitely without the talent to be a big-time football player--or even amedium-time one. "The fact that he's even at a Division I-AA football teamis a bit of a joke," he told the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune. At UNC, though,his presence was easily explained. "He was probably looking down the depthchart," said UNC coach Scott Downing, "and saw that we had one punterlisted."

That punter wasRafael Mendoza, a popular teammate, "a funny guy, a really good guy,"according to a teammate. Mendoza, a senior, had the job sewed up; Cozad was notmaking enough of a run at it to put any pressure on him. When Cozad askedcoaches how he was doing two weeks ago, Downing told him he'd have to "workharder."

Cozad, police say,hatched a plan instead. It might have been hard to see coming, the way Cozadblended into the collegiate woodwork. Male and female students at his dorm,Turner Hall, thought him a "sweetheart," a "normal, regularguy" and a "regular student who just wanted to study hard and meet newpeople." There may have been some signs, though. One player told policethat Cozad had "an extreme hatred, competition and jealousy" forMendoza. In fact police believe Cozad had begun plotting his sabotage weeksbefore. One teammate said Cozad asked him for directions to Mendoza'sapartment. And four days before the incident, Mendoza recalled later, somebodywho matched Cozad's description was in his parking lot, watching him.

On the night ofSept. 11, as Mendoza returned to his apartment, an assailant stabbed him in thethigh of his kicking leg, opening a puncture wound one inch wide and fiveinches deep. According to the police affidavit, the assailant then fled on footto the parking lot of Knotty's Pine Liquor. A store employee watched somebodyremove tape from the front and rear license plates of a dark-colored Dodge. Thevanity plates were registered to Suzanne Cozad of Wheatland, Wyo. Her son wasarrested shortly afterward and held on $30,000 bail until his mother came forhim and returned him to Wheatland.

Last Saturday,meanwhile, the Bears, winless in their last 12 games on the road, traveled toTexas State. Defensive back Jason Hildenbrand emerged as the kicker, at leastuntil Mendoza returns to the team. On six kicks he averaged just 29.3 yards,his first college punt traveling 11 yards. But the Bears, who were 0-2 cominginto the game and dogged by all manner of national media during the week,stunned the No. 23 Bobcats 14-13, with the deciding TD coming on a blocked puntreturn. It was a surprising result, indeed. Reassuring, anyway. SaidHildenbrand after the game, the week's sad events somehow reformatted into thisunlikely triumph, everybody pulling together, the whole thing looking more andmore like a moment of pathology and not just another indictment of competition:"This is just totally awesome."

''Armstrong called Pound a blowhard and said the storywas a 'nasty attempt ... to link me to doping.'' '--FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 18

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