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Books | Sports

January 19, 2007

Finding Her Place

Katie Hnida discusses the highs and lows of her quest to become the first woman to play D-I football.

David Goldenberg

Katie Hnida is on the phone with another reporter, but promises to call me back as soon as she's done. When she does, she says that she's given so many interviews by now that everything's starting to run together. There's a reason, of course, for all of the media attention. Hnida, who became the first woman to play Division I football when she took the field for an ill-fated extra point attempt for New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2002, has just published an autobiography of the last 10 years of her life, called Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey As the First Woman to Play Division One College Football. Her well-written tale combines the best and worst that sports has to offer.

In the book, she documents her rapid descent from fêted homecoming queen to outcast and alleged rape victim at the hands of her University of Colorado teammates, and then her slow re-emergence as both an individual and an athlete at the University of New Mexico. Her ultimate renewal comes not when she finally knocks through a couple of meaningless extra points late in the fourth quarter of a blowout victory in 2003, but a year later, when she finally musters the courage to tell the story of her horrific year at Colorado—and come forward with her rape claim—to Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly.

Katie Hnida
Right now, I think the most important thing for me to spread to other victims is not to just keep quiet. So many women don't say anything to anyone. They just hold it inside by themselves.

Katie Hnida

Though much of the story has been told before, Still Kicking sheds light on the intense emptiness Hnida often felt as she tried to become a pioneer for women in sports. She blames much of her trouble at Colorado on former coach Gary Barnett, who comes off in the book as initially aloof, then uncaring, and, finally, caustic and malicious.

Hnida does sometimes switch into autopilot mode during our phone call—the phrase "kicking was like breathing" makes it into our conversation and several other interviews she's done. But she's thoughtful and candid, and our talk ranges in topics from a serious discussion of rape laws to lighthearted banter about the strangeness of kickers and what position she'd play if she joined a women's team (it's not placekicker). She talks about the intensely different approaches of Barnett and New Mexico coach Rocky Long, and discusses whether, as her book's title suggests, she plans to keep kicking in the future. The following interview has been edited for clarity. (Also, you can hear Hnida and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: This is pretty much your life story from age 14 to age 25. Was it weird to write an autobiography when you're still so young?

Katie Hnida: Yes, it's completely strange. The weirdest thing, though, is that I got my first movie offer to buy the rights to my life when I was 18, after the whole homecoming-queen stint. I've gotten a ton of them now, and I keep thinking, man, I'm only 25. I don't want to do anything that's going to be my life.

GM: Are you definitely turning down all the movie offers?

KH: For now, I am. Also, until I can control some of the creative liberties they can take, I don't want to sign away my story and let it become something else.

GM: Like Necessary Roughness or something?

KH: (Laughter.) That was the good thing about the book. Since I wrote it myself, I was able to control it.

GM: And you didn't have any help? No ghostwriter?

KH: I started out with a co-writer and she had some health problems, so it just ended up being me. I think that was the way it was meant to be. I was able to tell my own story in my own words.

GM: You mention several times in your book how the media made it difficult for you as an athlete, but now you're on a publicity tour. Is that dynamic very different?

KH: It's totally bizarre. I spent so much time dodging the media throughout my whole life, and here the book comes out and here for the first time I'm supposed to be actively pursuing the media. It's really been a different experience for me.

GM: Does your publicist have a hard time making you do all these different engagements or are you cool with it?

KH: I'm pretty much OK with it. I turn down more tabloid-y things, but other than that, I'm pretty open to doing stuff. Sometimes [my PR team] goes by the rule that all publicity is good publicity. I'm not quite there yet.

GM: In the book, you mention several people and players in an unfavorable light. Have you heard from any of them or anyone else at Colorado since the book came out?

KH: No. Not from anybody whom I talked about unfavorably in the book.

GM: Have you heard from any former teammates from Colorado?

KH: I've spoken to a handful of my old teammates. Actually, some have voiced support for me. It's been recent, and it's been the first time that's happened. It's been a tremendous thing.

GM: You mention in a few of the interviews that you've done so far [like SI.com] that one of the reasons you wanted to write this book was to show how great of a program New Mexico is. Do you really think New Mexico is that good or was Colorado that bad?

KH: I think that Colorado was an exception rather than the rule. But I do believe that New Mexico is a very special place. They've got a great program down there. New Mexico wasn't just all about football. It was really a well-rounded program and Coach Long really made sure that we were focusing on being well-rounded people, not just well-rounded football players.

GM: So do you think that the difference between the two was more of an institutional control issue, or was it that some of the people who played for Colorado were worse individuals?

KH: I still don't have the answer to that. I wish I knew. I think that a lot of it was a leadership issue. I still always think that there's this standard that humans are going to behave to at least a certain level of something. That you do the right thing and you act appropriately because that's what you do.
I entered the program at Colorado at such a turbulent time because of the coaching change. I don't think people recognize how big of a change that can be for a college-football program. You get in a new coach and he's coming in with a new regimen, new players. Coach Barnett was a very different type of coach than Coach [Rick] Neuheisel was.
When I came to New Mexico, Coach Long had been there for seven years. He had the values of the program very firmly entrenched.

GM: Over Christmas, I saw that there was an Associated Press article that was pretty favorable to Gary Barnett. The writer claims that Barnett's quote about your being a terrible kicker was taken out of context.

[Editor's note: Barnett claims that his comments in the wake of Hnida's accusations, which led to his temporary suspension from the team, were misconstrued. Here's a portion of Barnett's infamous news conference, as it was transcribed on CNN.com.

Question: Coach, just to clarify, you say most of your players did not want Katie on the team and why was that?
Barnett: Just new, different—it's just—you know, it's a guy sports [sic] and they felt like Katie was forced on them.
Question: Was it a question of her ability?
Barnett: Well, it was obvious that Katie was not that good, she was awful, OK. And so, guys—you know what, guys do they respect your ability. You could [sic] 90-years-old, but you can go out and play they respect you. Well, Katie was a girl, and not only was she was a girl, she was terrible. OK, and there is no other way to say it, she couldn't kick the ball through the uprights. She took reps instead of players who were much better than her because we were giving her an opportunity. We stated with Katie hoping she could get better, and she did get a little bit better. But she was immediately not of the caliber that could play at this level and it [sic] very, very obvious.]

KH: I don't even know what to say. I was shocked when I found out. When I saw the reporter's name, I thought, "You've got be kidding me." That's the same guy who came to my book signing two weeks ago in Colorado and wrote a really great article.

Gary Barnett

Ex-Colorado Coach Gary Barnett. Courtesy Wikipedia.

GM: One of the things that Barnett claims in that article is that he didn't kick the players off the team who were accused of sex crimes by the other women because he is their "surrogate parent." Did you feel like he was your surrogate parent?

KH: No. He's talked so much about what a father figure he is and how he's there for his players. I've come to believe that he really just didn't consider me one of his players. Because if he truly finds himself to be a father figure, there's no way I think he would have included me in that bunch.
He's stated now that he tried to do everything right for me, that he tried to make sure that everything went as smoothly as possible and that he was looking out for me. I'm always a little bit perplexed to see that because he was on national TV spewing venomous comments out—whether they were taken out of context or not. That's some pretty nasty stuff.

GM: When you did decide to come forward with allegations about the Colorado program, including harassment and rape, you talked to Rick Reilly. [Ed: You can see the resulting story here.] He comes off, at least to me, as sort of a hero. Why did you trust him with your story?

KH: Rick had done the article on me in high school. We kept in touch. I knew that if I was coming out publicly [about the rape and harassment at CU], I knew that I had to do a couple of things. I knew that I had to come out in a very reputable source, and I knew I trusted Rick enough that I could tell my story to him. Even though it was agonizing to sit across from him and tell him everything, he knew me well enough that we were able to go back and forth and do a real interview. Whereas if I had gone with someone I didn't know as well, I had no idea what would have happened. I trusted that Rick would write a good article. He's got a spectacular human element to his stories and he always puts human life ahead of sports and ties sports in there. The way that he does that is really beautiful.

GM: In the book, you say that you met with the Colorado athletic director after you went public with your accusations.

KH: I've met with the Boulder DA numerous times regarding my own rape and about [potentially] pressing charges. The university said that they would support me if I decided to do that, and I was interested to see if the athletic department and specifically Coach Barnett would. Because the thing that everybody forgets about is that his comments about me being a crappy kicker overshadowed [other things he did].
He also made comments about my sex life. The morning I came forward, he sent out an email to the athletic director asking how aggressive he should be regarding my sexual conquests. And that absolutely hurt 20 times more than him saying I was a crappy kicker. I knew that they tried to smear some of the other women, but I was a little bit naïve in thinking that because I was a virgin when I was raped, and there was no alcohol involved, there really wasn't any dirt that they could dig up in my past to try to make it look like I deserved this or something like that.
Instead, they just made stuff up. And that was the lowest of the low. If we're going back to the father-figure thing, I don't think that's a very fatherly thing to do.

GM: When you did meet with the athletic director, did you talk about the possibility of suing the school?

KH: No, no, no. It's never been about suing the school. At this point, it's only been about criminal charges against my rapist. But because so many people in the football program had basically ripped me to shreds, I didn't know what would happen if I decided to press charges—how bad things would get.

GM: In the book, you list several reasons why you haven't taken your accused rapist to court, and ESPN's Jamele Hill wrote that another one was the outcome of the Kobe Bryant case.

KH: It was really difficult for me to watch what that woman had to go through because it was typical of what happens to rape victims when they come forward. It is the most underreported violent crime in America and there's definitely a reason for that. The kind of crap that they drag you through is unbelievable. Besides for the emotional trauma of the event itself and the after-effects of that, going through a trial where you have the tactics that the defense attorneys use is incredibly painful and awful. I know from my experience of coming forward how terrible that was getting smeared. There's this small group of hardcore CU fans who just hate me so much because of the fact that I came forward.

GM: How did you find about them?

KH: A lot of stuff on message boards.

GM: You read all that stuff?

KH: I don't read the message boards, but one was brought to my attention a week ago. Someone on some CU fan site wrote something like, "Hey if you guys are bored today, why don't you go review Katie Hnida's book on Amazon," and then added a tongue-in-cheek comment about how he wouldn't review it without reading it, but that I was making money off of an unsubstantiated claim. Then he provided a link to the book, and sure enough, there were two or three people who just ripped me. They ended up being removed by Amazon because of the nature of their comments.

GM: So you get all of this crap and you haven't even pressed charges.

KH: It makes me wonder what would happen if I did. I know that the media attention would be unbelievable.

GM: So when other stuff makes the news about sexual assault in sports…

KH: Looking at the Duke stuff now, that's really frustrating. When you have a case like that it gives a bad name to—I don't even know if I should comment on this.

GM: How about this: That potentially false accusations should affect other people's decisions to come forward seems ridiculous, but it seems like some people are worried about that.

KH: That's exactly it. I think it's very true. Any false accusations that are out there make it that much harder for those of us who have been raped or attacked to press charges. I have people who don't believe me—they think that I made the whole thing up. For me that's absolutely crazy.

GM: Are you ever worried that your decision to hold off may also cause other victims of rape to do the same?

KH: That's such a hard thing. I didn't know much about rape and sexual assault when it happened to me. Obviously, in the past few years, I've learned so much more. Right now, I think the most important thing for me to spread to other victims is not to just keep quiet. So many women don't say anything to anyone. They just hold it inside by themselves. I did that myself for about a year. That's just the worst thing. There are people out there who can help. Whether it's telling a family member or a friend or a counselor, just not keeping it solely to yourself helps tremendously.
I wish that I could say, "Yeah, we should all be out there prosecuting our rapists," but the system doesn't work in a cookie-cutter fashion. It's not like you get raped and then you go to trial and, boom, your rapist gets thrown in jail. When I met with the DA, it looked like even if I did convict my rapist, he wouldn't go to jail.

GM: But you still haven't made your final decision about that?

KH: No, I haven't because the state of Colorado called a grand jury to investigate all the stuff that happened at CU, and I testified to them and they extended the rape statutes. So we each have 10 years from the date that we testified in 2004.

GM: In your book, you write that "kickers are at the bottom of the football food chain." Later, you quote one of your harassers saying, "Barnett hates kickers to begin with, but he's got a really special place for you." Why do kickers get such little respect?

KH: I wouldn't say it's completely that way everywhere. Kickers are always going to be kickers because we're not out there every play, and we're not cracking helmets. We tend to be smaller and we play a very skill-oriented position, but at New Mexico we were much more integrated into the team. We weren't a separate group at all. We really were a bigger part of the team at New Mexico than the kickers were at CU.

GM: In general, though, when you hear ex-athletes color-commenting on games, they're always making fun of the kicker.

KH: Well, I guess that is kind of true. We tend to be smaller, punier; we don't lay out the big hits on people.

GM: Kickers also tend to have this reputation for being very strange. What's up with that?

Katie Hnida

As a senior at Chatfield High, Hnida made 27 of 28 extra points and all three of her field-goal attempts.

KH: I have no idea, but I will say that definitely when I went to a kicking camp once, it was like a giant weirdo convention. We had all types there. Courtesy S & S.

GM: Did you find that kicking was making you stranger?

KH: No. I think the fact that I was a chick was my strange thing.

GM: Do you think that a woman who tries to make it in D-I in another position would face less harassment?

KH: I don't know. That's a tough question. Again, it depends on where she is, at what program. I believe that's what dictated what happened to me, not my position and not my ability.

GM: In your book, you mention a pretty mean column in the Denver Post called, "No Place for Women in Football." One of the things Mark Kiszla writes is that putting a woman in football cleats is a "cheap publicity stunt." Did you ever worry that some programs recruiting you were trying to use you for good PR?

KH: Yeah, that was always something that I was really cautious about, and I made sure that my intentions were very clear with the coaches and with the programs. It was so important for me to let them know that I was an actual football player. But no matter how much I have tried to fight it, to some extent people say that I'm a publicity stunt. After I got into the Las Vegas Bowl and had my extra point blocked, the next day in the Los Angeles Times a woman columnist wrote that it was more stunt than sport, whether I wanted it to be or not. I thought that really stinks. I wondered how she could say that. She had not been through this entire season with me and spent as many hours as I did on the field on the field, practicing and playing and going to meetings and lifting and everything that I did with my team. How can she call me a stunt and not an athlete?

GM: So you never worried that you didn't have enough talent or leg strength to be a D-I kicker?

KH: No way. I knew when I went to kicking camp the first time that I could compete with those guys when I was in high school. It was evident to me that I was going to be able to go on, and I know for sure that they wouldn't have taken me on at New Mexico if I didn't have what it took. That was one of the biggest reasons I decided on New Mexico. Coach Long was like, "Girl, guy, alien, whatever. If you could play, you can play. If you can't you don't."

GM: In one article I read, your Dad mentioned that you are still interested in kicking. Maybe overseas or in the CFL or something like that.

KH: You never know. The most frustrating thing for me is that I never got to hit my potential. In college, I wasn't even as good of a kicker as I felt I was in high school. Because of the mental aspect and what that did.
But to [play professionally as kicker], I'd go about doing it like any other player would: get an agent, be trained and go tryout.

GM: There are also these semi-professional women's leagues. Would you consider that?

KH: I would not kick in a woman's league, because if I played in a woman's league I would definitely play another position. If I had been born a guy, I definitely would have been a linebacker. My favorite days at New Mexico were when we would play razzle-dazzle ball and I'd get to run around with the guys and play actual ball.

You can hear Hnida and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, February 7, in New York's Lower East Side.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on Feb 06, 07
gms

I have to be very careful about how I word this, because I know I will be misunderstood as somehow being sexist, or at least dubious about Katie's claim, but there is something that bothers me--fundamentally--about the paradox of this situation: Hnida, who claims she wanted to write this book in order to show others not to keep quiet about being the victim of sexual abuse, still refuses to press charges, and try her rapist in the court of law. He deserves to be tried there, and should his guilt be proven, deserves any punishment he is given. It is not so much the fact that Hnida is making money off of the story that bothers me (I don't believe that is her motivation, and I think she could make a HELL of alot more money selling her life rights to a movie-maker.) What bothers me is that Hnida is not seeking any real justice. And I want to know why. The excuse (and I understand it is a valid one) that she is afraid of a repercussion similar to the one Kobe's accuser saw, doesn't seem like reason enough to avoid bringing the truth to light. If Hnida has nothing in her past to hide, then why in the world would she not put the truth up against any lies that the defense could conjure? There is something only half-honest about Hnida profitting from a partial accusal of an unidentified player from the team. It puts the entire team under a shadow of skepticism, when there are certainly individuals on that team who do not deserve it. And unfortunately for Hnida it puts her story under a shadow of skepticism when she is willing to expose herself to the pain of reliving this incident in order to make some money, and urge other victims to speak out. Yet she is not willing to relive that pain enough to speak out herself and accuse (and, if justified) punish the man who Hnida says assaulted her.

- Sports
- posted on Feb 09, 07
Larry F

where do is send fan mail for Katie Hnida?


Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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