Dec. 6, 2006
DENVER (AP) -Katie Hnida now lives in New York, far away from the football fields that defined her high school and college years and turned them into one part triumph, another part living hell.
After a single season at Colorado that was filled with sorrow and pain, she persevered and found success at New Mexico, where she became the first woman to play and score in a Division I football game.
In her new book, Hnida does the important work of retelling that tale, hoping the positive parts of her story will inspire other young women to take a chance and try to make it in a men's sport.
"It felt more like surgery," Hnida said at a book signing Tuesday, when asked what it was like to pen the pages and tell her story, which included allegations she was raped while at CU.
"It was something really painful, but something that I knew would make me healthier in the long run," she said. "I dodged it for a long time. But it was important for me to tell my story in my own words."
The story she recounts in "Still Kicking, My Journey as the First Woman to Play Division I College Football" is familiar to those who followed the sordid tale of the Colorado football scandal:
Hnida was a star high school kicker in suburban Denver, promised a chance to compete for a kicking spot at CU by former coach Rick Neuheisel. But Neuheisel left and was replaced by Gary Barnett, who Hnida said was much less receptive to the idea of a woman trying out for the team.
In Hnida's view, Barnett helped create a culture of hostility and harassment that made her single season at CU so painful. She claimed she was raped in 2000 by a teammate she thought was a friend. Four years later, after she had left Colorado and after other claims of harassment and rape involving CU football had come to light, Hnida took her story public in Sports Illustrated. That brought on a whole new round of allegations and troubles for Barnett.
Barnett withstood that, as well as the debacle of a news conference where he said Hnida "was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There's no other way to say it." He withstood a four-month suspension and returned to coach two more seasons. Not until the Buffs lost three straight games by a combined score of 130-22 to close 2005 did the coach finally lose his job.
Hnida said Barnett's ouster didn't feel like a victory to her.
"I would never say anything disparaging about him," she said. "I had to come to terms with the way he treated me. I had come to a place of peace with that."
Barnett, reached at his home in Arizona, said he did everything he could to help Hnida fit in at CU.
"For one thing, you never suspect your guys won't treat other people with respect," Barnett said. "Maybe I didn't foresee that. But I didn't know about that until I read about it in Sports Illustrated. I don't know how to respond. We did everything we could do. We had the right motives. We wanted to do the right things. We wanted to give her the right chance."
After leaving Colorado, Hnida found a home at New Mexico, where she was greeted warmly and made to feel a part of the team.
The most uplifting part of her 277-page book - a good portion of which is devoted to the pain and harassment she endured at CU - might very well be the prologue, where she describes how she felt after kicking an extra point for the Lobos to become the first woman to score in a Division I game.
"The cheering exploded," she wrote. "My eyes brimmed with tears as I waved and smiled. I turned back to my teammates, the players who treated me like one of them. The players who believed that a girl who trained and worked as hard as they did deserved to get in the game. The players I was so close to, we were like family."
It would have been easier for Hnida to leave football behind after the debacle at CU, but her willingness to press on helped her get through the pain. She hopes it will also inspire other women like her.
The 25-year-old psychology major wrote that she was encouraged to learn that 2,759 girls played on high school teams across America in 2005, up from 779 in 1997. The high point of her question-and-answer session at the book signing came when a man told her two of his female family members were playing high school ball in Michigan - mainly because of the example Hnida set.
"I'm so glad you told me that," Hnida said, as applause rippled from the gathering of more than 100 people.
In New York, Hnida is doing some freelance writing and also goes on speaking engagements.
One possibility for the future would be as a sideline reporter at football games.
"But I still think I'd have the urge to throw down the microphone and get out there on the field and play," Hnida said.
And indeed, she hasn't given up on that dream. She still works out, still trains - at least as much as that's possible in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Her father, Dave, said Katie still has dreams of kicking somewhere as a pro, whether in the CFL or in a minor league in Europe.
"It's still something she thinks about," Dave Hnida said. "She hasn't given up on it."
It may sound farfetched. But as anyone who reads her book can tell, Hnida has overcome other obstacles.
"I'd love it if someday, I could go back" to CU, the university she adored growing up and that inspired her to begin her journey. "But it's going to take a while. The pain doesn't go away. It has eased. I'm in a better place, but it still hurts."