UNC Reserve Punter Arrested For Allegedly Stabbing Rival In Leg

Player Suspended From School

In a scenario reminiscent of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the University of Northern Colorado's reserve punter was suspended from school after allegedly stabbing his rival in his kicking leg.

Mitch Cozad, who had been a sophomore from Wheatland, Wyo., allegedly attacked starting punter Rafael Mendoza in a parking lot in Evans on Monday night, Evans police Lt. Gary Kessler said.

A university employee associated with the athletic department who asked to remain anonymous, told the Greeley Tribune that Cozad, who was wearing a hood over his head, attacked Mendoza from behind, stabbing him in his right leg.

The assailant fled in a black Dodge Charger, Kessler said. About 10 minutes after the attack, a liquor store clerk told police that two men in a car matching that description stopped outside the store, stripped tape off the license plate and drove away.

The clerk gave police the license number and the car was traced to Cozad, Kessler said.

"I guess the only identified motive at this point in time is the competition for that position," Evans police Lt. Gary Kessler said Wednesday.

Mendoza, the Bears' first-string punter from Thornton, was treated and released from the North Colorado Medical Center Monday night. Coach Scott Downing said Mendoza will not punt for UNC in Saturday's game at Texas State University but doesn't know if he will have to sit out the rest of the season.

"I don't know how long he'll be out because I haven't talked to the doctor," Downing said. "Rafael is a competitor and wants to get back as soon as he can. When that occurs, I don't know."

Mendoza, walking back to his Evans apartment in crutches, briefly spoke to 7NEWS. He said that he's doing better but that, "It hurts to move."

Mendoza's parents said he is in a lot of pain and on a lot of medication. They said the stabbing did hit a nerve in his leg but he should be OK.

Cozad, Mendoza and freshman Zak Bigelow had been in a three-way race for the starting punter's job in pre-season training. Mendoza has averaged 37.6 yards-per-punt on nine punts in the two games so far this season.

Cozad was arrested Tuesday and faces second-degree assault charges. He was freed Wednesday on a $30,000 bond.

UNC athletic department officials suspended Cozad from the football team Tuesday morning. He was later suspended from school and evicted from Turner Hall.

"Wow, he must want the position bad," said UNC student Ryan Smith.

The football team was instructed not to talk to reporters about the incident, according to the Greeley newspaper.

Cozad had transferred to UNC from the University of Wyoming and was born in Denver. Mendoza is a junior at UNC and grew up in Thornton, where he went to Skyview High School.

The incident conjured up images of the rivalry between figure skaters Harding and Kerrigan. Harding was banned from the sport for life after her former husband hired a hit man to smack Kerrigan on the knee with a crowbar.

However, Downing said he's not sure that competition for the starting position was the motive.

Cozad and Mendoza were competitive, Downing said, but no more than players at other positions.

"No different than starting quarterback or starting right tackle," Downing said. "Everyone was held accountable to the same level."

Asked if there was any jealousy between the two players, he said, "I have no idea. That would all be conjecture."

"It's just kind of mind-blowing," said UNC student Ryan Farr. "I don't know. I guess the way sports are going these days, it could happen anywhere."

"It's obviously a disappointment that this occurred," said Downing. "I guess these types of things happen and we have to move on from them."

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