KENT, Ohio — Katie Hnida's story starts with football. Why? Because that's where she starts it. It's how she tells it, and this is about hearing what she has to say.
When Hnida (pronounced NYE-da) was 14, her dad jokingly suggested she play football, and it took just one time on the practice field, a session that stretched over hours and hours and into the evening and the night, to find out how much she loved kicking that football through the goalposts.
She felt like a bird when she kicked, spreading her arms as part of the motion.
"You just feel free."
It was comfort for her.
So she showed up at her high school team's tryouts outside of Denver, and someone asked, "Little lady, are you here for the girls' lacrosse team? Are you lost?"
Nope. Not lost. Football. Many of the guys giggled, including the guy who would eventually be her backup. And that shut him up.
Hnida made the team at the University of Colorado, too. After transferring to New Mexico, she would go on to be the first woman to score in a major college football game. That's why there is a Katie Hnida jersey in the College Football Hall of Fame.
It would be so nice if her story could end there. But it would not be real.
The story she tells students at Kent State University this day, and later elaborates on in an interview, is harsh and cold.
"I think every day from the very, very beginning, they were calling me every derogatory name," she said of her time at Colorado, starting in the fall of 1999. "Bitch, c--t, ho or slut. One of the backup quarterbacks was throwing a football at my head when I was warming up."
And then it got worse, she said, as a player got her alone in a room near the locker room.
"He said, 'How do your shoulder pads fit?'" she said. "He shoved me up against the wall and said, 'I just want to know how those shoulder pads fit on your tits.'"
And she said he went about trying to find out, reaching under her shoulder pads, until someone walked in. And before he left, he warned her, "Don't you dare tell anyone about this."
"I was basically in survival mode," she said. "Unfortunately, the worst of it didn't come until the end of my freshman year."
One of her teammates who had consoled her all year, who had told her that she was strong and that her tormentors on the team were idiots, invited her to come over to watch a basketball game on TV. When she got there, she said, he sat closer to her than usual.
"He said, 'Gosh, you're so pretty.'
"I'm like 'What?'
"'Oh come on.'
"And he leaned over and started to kiss my neck."
"'Come on. You know you want this.'"
Hnida alleges he raped her. And when he was done, she said, he got up to take a phone call. She wasn't processing. "My body started freaking out. Then my instincts came crashing in. Get out of here. Go, go, go."
She says she left, got into her GMC Jimmy, backed into some pole and frantically drove home. Once there, she immediately locked the chain, then the deadbolt, then the handle lock.
She asked herself what had happened. She tried to process. She said she asked herself why she went over there, why she wore shorts. What had she done wrong?
She didn't talk about it.
And it was not until four years later that Hnida broke her silence and made her rape allegation public in an article in Sports Illustrated. That came after three women had stepped forward at the University of Colorado, saying they had been raped on the night of a party for CU football players and recruits.
She saw what was happening publicly to the other women who had come forward first, so she knew, roughly, the scrutiny and ridicule she would face. But she did it anyway, although she never named her alleged attacker.
Hnida said she was aware that people wondered why she had never gone to the police. She said she did go, but that the district attorney told her it was unlikely her alleged attacker would ever receive more than an ankle bracelet and house arrest.
Hnida decided not to push forward. At Colorado, she said there were people who thought she had made it up.
Hnida would not identify her attacker to Bleacher Report either. She said the one person she had identified him to was Mary Keegan, the district attorney in Boulder, Colorado, at the time. Reached by phone in early December to ask about her conversations with Hnida, that district attorney, now Mary Lacy of the law firm Lacy & Maguire, refused to comment, saying, "I don't talk to journalists."
Asked to comment on Hnida's allegations, a spokesperson for the University of Colorado athletic department stated: "Many of us thought the world of Katie and admired her for pursuing her dream of playing college football. She did have many supportive teammates, but unfortunately there were some who didn't want a woman on the team. And that should have never been tolerated. We only learned of the rape allegation after she had left the program. We've never had enough specific evidence to turn over to any authorities for investigation."
Hnida's allegation made big headlines more than 10 years ago. Today, she is still coping.
"It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they'll respect you. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it." — then-Colorado coach Gary Barnett to reporters in February 2004, after Hnida went public with her rape allegation
Hnida said that's who does the talking in such incidents: the coaches, the university administrators.
"People believe the coaches because they are able to speak up. They have the microphones and the platform, and because they are in a position of authority," Hnida said.
The sport of football has been overwhelmed this season with stories about violence against women, and it took an elevator video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee for the masses of football fans to believe.
Hnida identifies with the alleged victims. She hurts for them.
She said she spoke with the woman who alleged that Kobe Bryant had assaulted her. She said she tried, unsuccessfully, to talk with the woman who alleged that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had raped her, an accusation that Winston denies.
CNN reported in September 2004 that the sexual assault charge against Bryant was dismissed "after prosecutors filed a motion for dismissal," and USA Today reported in March 2005 that a civil lawsuit was settled out of court. Bryant has maintained that the sex was consensual.
When Hnida hears these cases, does she...
"Feel the parallel?" she said, jumping in. "Completely. ... The allegation comes against a big-time athlete at a school, and there tends to be a protocol at the school, and you tend to watch the fans act the same way.
"Blind loyalty. And then you get re-traumatized."
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) led a congressional study earlier this year of 440 U.S. colleges and universities. The report, called "Sexual Violence on Campus," cited the Journal of American College Health, which found that approximately one in five women is a victim of attempted or completed sexual violence during college.
Yet McCaskill's study found that more than 40 percent of schools in the sampling have not conducted a single investigation of sexual assault in the past five years. In examining policies and procedures that might encourage or discourage the reporting of sexual violence, the study found 22 percent of institutions give athletic departments oversight in cases involving athletes.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote the book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. The book is about the importance of women making their voices heard. She appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on September 9 to talk about the difficulty victims have in coming forward publicly.
"You see this in the military context; you see it in college campuses, this constant protection of the star of the favorite son of whatever the issue is," Gillibrand said on the show. "And the disbelief of the women. And then the victim-blaming. ... There's this devaluation."
Hnida said that in the outcry after she stepped forward, "My life felt disregarded."
She said she is particularly upset over how Winston's alleged victim has been treated publicly. While she said that no one knows for sure what happened between the woman and Winston, she believes the public response has been dismissive of, even hostile to, the woman.
"It's kind of a plausible blindness," Hnida said. "At Florida State, they don't want to know. They want plausible deniability. [Florida State coach] Jimbo Fisher says there is no victim because there is no crime. You better really know what you're talking about when you say that, the details. Nobody knows what happened there." Winston maintains that the sex was consensual.
In a written statement he released after the state attorney's decision not to charge Winston with sexual assault, Fisher wrote:
As you might imagine, I was pleased to hear that the State Attorney's Office exonerated Jameis in the matter. I'm not going to answer any questions about the situation, but I would like to point that our community and our university are blessed to have really good people in place to review matters like this.
Hnida said that in these cases, in general, the public picks apart the behavior of the rape victim, pointing out their irrational behavior as evidence they're making it up. Yet, Hnida says that after her own alleged rape, it took a few minutes for her senses to kick in and that she doesn't even remember driving home, other than backing into a pole.
"The way I was treated after I came forward..." Hnida said, thinking back. "I don't want to say it was as bad as the rape itself, but it almost was."
Before coming forward, though, Hnida had to go through her torment privately. She ended up returning to Colorado for her second year, but she said because of injuries and illnesses she wasn't on the team. She stopped going to classes regularly. She cut her trademark long, blond hair.
She was quiet and hadn't told anyone yet. She was going it alone.
She fell apart. She knew she couldn't stay, so she left for Santa Barbara City College in the fall of 2001. She showed up at the first day of practice, and punters and kickers took the field first. This would be her comfort zone, her safe haven.
But no, that was taken from her, too.
"The second I stepped back on the field is when the flashbacks started," she said. "It was like a movie reel."
She turned and ran, and she never came back to practice there again.
"I now know I was having a panic attack," she said. "I was so depressed. I wasn't eating. Anxiety, panic attacks."
She started going to therapy at New Mexico, which she described as similar to surgery: You go inside, and it's painful and leaves scars.
The following year, she transferred to New Mexico, sold on then-coach Rocky Long's no-nonsense style. She had never told him about the rape either, but she started to ask him if everyone would be OK having a female on the team. She said he cut her off with one word: "Yeah." But, there won't be problems, there won't be... "There will be no problem. Is there anything else?" he said. "OK. I hope to see you at New Mexico."
And he hung up.
There never was a problem at New Mexico. Her first day of class, she said a player started walking with her. She was suspicious. He squatted down and told her to climb aboard. She did. He gave her a piggyback ride all the way to her psych class, then put her down and said, "We take care of our kickers."
"How aggressive should I be re; Katie...sexual conquests by her?" That was an email, discovered later during an investigation, that Gary Barnett had sent to his boss.
"Hate mail. Death threats," Hnida said, describing how she was treated by CU fans. "I felt bad for the other 114 guys on the team who had not raped me. But a lot of them never stood up. You have to stand up. I think that's fair enough to say. When something is wrong, you stand up. When you can help, you stand up."
She said she had someone come over to her apartment in Albuquerque and drive her truck away so the media would follow and she could sneak out without being bothered. It didn't work.
She said a reporter called her and asked if the story was true that she had performed topless lap dances on players in a hot tub at a road game.
"It was a rumor that swirled around," she said, "as if I had done something to deserve to be raped."
Earlier this month, Barnett responded to an email request from Bleacher Report asking if he believed Hnida's rape allegation was legitimate, and also asking what he meant by the "sexual conquests" email. This, via email, is how he responded:
"Katie was one of my players. I stand behind her as I would any and all my players. I will support her and help her if she ever wants to pursue further action in regards to any allegations. I hope she is well."
Shortly after Hnida took her story public, more women came forward alleging that Colorado football players had raped them.
According to a 2007 article in The Denver Post, no charges were ever filed for any of the assault claims, though one woman, Lisa Simpson, received $2.5 million when Colorado settled her Title IX claim in 2007. And another woman, who remains anonymous, received $350,000. Barnett, athletic director Richard Tharp and CU president Betsy Hoffman all left the university within 20 months of when Hnida came forward. Barnett has not coached again.
Meanwhile, at New Mexico, Hnida's kicking style had changed. She wasn't as good as she was in high school. Video showed her not spreading her arms like a bird, in freedom, when she kicked anymore but instead curling up, "like I was protecting my body."
It has been 14 years now, and Hnida is still suffering. She is heard, though. She gives speeches at colleges, such as the one at Kent State. A crowd of about 75 was there—smaller than her usual—featuring at least a third of the Kent State football team, including female kicker April Goss.
Players were not required to go but were told about it.
Afterward, cornerback Kerrick Rhone said treatment like that of Goss "for our team would be a shock. We think of April as another teammate."
Hnida talked about the culture of respect and said that of all the teams she has been on, including high school, Arena Football and semipro, Colorado was the only place where she had a problem.
The truth is, it's exhausting for Hnida to give these speeches. Not only is there travel, but she has to describe the details of her alleged rape. Twice during the speech, and a couple of times afterward while grabbing a sandwich and a beer and holding a conversation, she got choked up.
She said she continues to go to counseling. She also notes she's still made to feel uncomfortable when she's in Colorado, where her parents live. Occasionally, people still recognize her there.
At Colorado, the team has not had the same level of success since the sexual assault scandals. Colorado went to 16 bowl games in the 20 years ending with the 2005 season. In the nine years since then, it has been to one bowl game (a 30-24 loss to Alabama) and has had a losing record every year.
Hnida said that after a recent CU loss she saw someone post on the Internet somewhere that it was the "Curse of Katie Hnida."
She keeps close tabs on how the speeches are making her feel. She won't give too many of them, as it's just too tiring, but she feels it's important for people to hear her story.
Later, she confides that she still loves kicking but says she hasn't gotten back to the level she reached in high school. Her trip to Kent was short, but usually on these trips she takes a tee and a ball with her and looks for an open field. When she's kicking, "It's like everything else just fades away."
The flashbacks don't start.
She's in the Hall of Fame, for one thing, but she realizes she's known for something else entirely. She starts her speech with, "My story, inevitably, starts with football."