Jeff Pearlman

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Katie Hnida

#92
The first woman to score in a Division I football game overcame ridicule and a sexual assault at the hands of a teammate to become a beacon of courage. POSTED March 6, 2013

A couple of days ago someone named Lauren Silberman became the first woman to partake in an NFL combine. It was the sort of story the media swarmed to—and when Silberman spit the bit (her kicking was, to be polite, awful), I immediately thought of Katie Hnida.

A decade ago, Katie became the first woman to score in a Division I football game, when she kicked two extra points in New Mexico’s thumping of Texas State. She has since played in multiple professional and semi-professional leagues, following her passion for the art of toe-meets-ball.

For many, though, the name Katie Hnida evokes memories of a far darker story—her awful treatment at the hands of University of Colorado coach Gary Barnett after coming forward with her saga of being sexually assaulted by a Buffalo teammate. Barnett greeted the news by ripping Hnida, saying, “Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There’s no other way to say it. She couldn’t kick the ball through the uprights.”

As you’re reading this, Katie is a coveted motivational speaker.

As you’re reading this, Gary Barnett is invisible.

Here, Katie talks about Silberman’s sorry showing, and what it means for female kickers. More seriously, she delves into the nightmare of sexual assault, and how one finds the strength to move forward and recover.

Katie loves chocolate milk, cares little for Nas and considers Jan Stenerud the all-time greatest kicker. You can follow her on Twitter here, and visit her Facebook page here.

Katie Hnida, the Quaz is teed up. Let ‘er rip …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Katie, earlier this week Lauren Silberman became the first woman to appear at an NFL combine. She was a kicker, everyone made a big deal out of it—and she performed terribly. I was wondering how you felt about this? Do you feel like she did some damage here? Is it no biggie? And why wasn’t this you, years ago?

KATIE HNIDA: I certainly was very interested to watch Lauren kick and was hoping she would do well. It takes a lot of courage to be the only woman out there with a bunch of guys.

I was very surprised to see that she didn’t have any real kicking background—an NFL tryout is a big deal. I assumed the first female would come up the ranks the same way the rest of the players of all positions do—through high school, college, Arena, CFL, etc.

I am worried about this being taken as a publicity stunt—all of us women who compete against men have to fight that stigma even when we have the resumes. That being said, we’ll see if this ultimately ends up being something that will work against women who truly want to play. I truly hope not.

I also know that there were a limited number of spots for this combine and players were turned away. There are a lot of people who dream of playing in the NFL and I have a lot of male kicker friends who are working very, very hard to get an opportunity to show what they can do. I myself have been kicking for 17 years now. I can’t even guess how many balls I’ve kicked or hours I’ve trained. A lot.

As for me? I didn’t do it after college because I wasn’t ready. Like I said, this is serious business. If you ever do see me at a combine, it will be when I am in the absolute best mental and physical shape of my life. I will be there to compete and to try help a team win with with my kicking abilities.

J.P.: More than 10 years ago, while playing football at the University of Colorado, you said you were sexually assaulted. In the ensuing years, you’ve spoken repeatedly about sexual assault—to schools, to groups, to churches, etc. I’m wondering what that’s like. What I mean is, you’re not talking kicking or boxing or baking cookies. You’re talking about when a man physically/sexually took advantage of you—and you’re talking about it over and over and over again. How do you do so without losing your mind or breaking down? Does it still feel real, or—in a way—more like a saga you’re telling about someone else? And, since we’re here, how would you saying being a victim of sexual abuse sticks with a person years after it happens? How does it impact someone long term?

K.H.: It still can feel real, no question. However, it is easier now that time has passed and I speak more. I don’t re-live it with the same intensity. When I first started speaking, I had to schedule in “recovery days” after a talk and make sure I had my therapist on speed dial in case speaking triggered anything too big for me to handle on my own. In more recent years, I’ve been able to build resources in myself and am very cognizant of my emotions and where I am at in my own healing process—because it is a process.

I don’t think you ever “get over” sexual abuse. It’s not a cold. It’s something that changes you on a fundamental level. The important thing is to get help. Because of the stigma and the misconceptions about sexual violence in our culture, so many victims chose not to tell anyone about what happened to them.

I’ve learned the hard way that when bad things happen to you, you have two choices: To run away and ignore or to take it head on and deal with all the painful, shitty feelings that come with it. It’s important to take the time to acknowledge our pain, especially because we live in a society that says you should be happy all the time. In reality, as humans, we all encounter tragedy and suffering, no matter who we are. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we live in—and through—whatever happens. Honoring the feeling of grief, loss, fear, anger (all very prevalent feelings for sexual assault victims) while letting ourselves and our emotions move as they need to without judgement is tremendously healing.

Often, I compare it to surgery—in order to get rid of the disease, you’ve got to have the surgery. It’s painful. It takes time to heal. You have to rehab. You’ll have a scar. But it was necessary so you can get healthy again.

Does is ever end? I can’t answer that. I still get triggered sometimes. But healing is possible and I make sure to stress that to other survivors—that there will be days so bad that you can’t imagine your life being anything more than a big black hole of pain, but there will come a time when life can be deeper, richer and more fulfilling than it ever was before.

J.P.: I know you’re from Colorado, attended Chatfield High, went 3-for-3 on field goals and 27-of-28 on extra points as a senior. But what is it about kicking a football that you love? I mean, it seems like a pretty repetitive and dull endeavor—pull back leg, kick, pull back leg, kick. Why are you so into kicking? And when did you first really feel the love for it?

K.H.: Kicking is an art form to me. It’s so much more than pull leg back and kick. A million things go into making it a good kick—like the precise angle of your leg lock as you hit the ball to where your arms and head are during the kick. It all happens in microseconds, so you have to do it perfectly and all in concert to make the kick go straight and high. It’s like a symphony.

I can fall into “flow” with kicking—the psychological state of total absorption while doing something you love. I’m in the groove, I’m on fire—I’m a total kicking nerd. It makes me feel free.

And, of course, the thrill of the game. Everyone thinks they can kick a football until they have to do it in 1.25 seconds with a snap, hold and 11 big, fast guys charging and trying to tear your head off. (Sometimes screaming, “I’m going to eat you, blondie!” or other creative/non-printable/head-scratching things).

J.P.: On Aug. 30, 2003, you kicked two extra points in New Mexico’s 72-8 victory over Texas State, thereby becoming the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I game. I’m wondering what, exactly, the moment meant to you? What did it feel like? I’m sure you were aware of the history—did it matter than it came in a blowout?

K.H.: Nah, the part that mattered the most was that it was my teammates who got me into that game. I’d had the block at the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl and it was incredibly hard on me. I felt like I had let every other woman athlete on the planet down. The boys knew how hard I’d worked and when the chance for redemption came, they bugged my coach to let me get in. It meant a lot and was really indicative of my time at New Mexico. Sometimes I think I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been with such an amazing group of guys.

And the kick—in a way, the moment just happened. It was something I had been working toward for so long (literally, years), but in the end, it was just a cool part of this unbelievable journey of getting to be a college athlete and do what I love.

J.P.: You attended three colleges (Colorado, Santa Barbara City College, New Mexico), experiencing some nightmarish things, some glorious things, had a lot of national attention. I’m wondering—was it hard to move on once you graduated from New Mexico? I mean, I struggled moving on from Delaware, and my life was, comparatively, dull.

K.H.: It’s been an interesting 10 years, no question. I’ve had to spend a lot of time healing from my time at Colorado, but also from the ramifications of speaking publicly about my assault. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever chosen to do. But there’s also been so much great stuff that’s happened and I know there is only more to come.

I’ve gotten to write my own book, I’ve jumped out of an airplane to raise money for sexual assault awareness, swam with wild dolphins, had the Counting Crows play me a special request for my 30th birthday, lived in six different states, caught a game the final season at Yankee Stadium and have gotten to have lots of cake and champagne. Most important, I get to work on things that make me feel alive and hopefully change peoples lives in the process. I feel incredibly blessed.

Someone smart once said that life is a daring adventure or nothing at all. I like to think I subscribe to that.

J.P.: Since college you’ve kicked professionally in a bunch of leagues. I say this with 100% respect—do you think you’re getting these jobs because you’re the best available kicker, or because these leagues need attention and a female kicker is, clearly, attention-worthy?

K.H.: Sure, it’s always a concern for me when trying out, but it’s actually really simple. I’m not going to play on a team that doesn’t value my kicking above all. I’ve worked my ass off for more than 18 years to be taken seriously, have turned down a zillion things that could have potentially damaged that and there is no way that is going to change now. I’m an athlete, not a sideshow.

J.P.: In a recent article in the Denver Post, you said you were still trying to figure out your next step in life. After you’ve been through so much, and after you’re known—specifically—for one BIG thing, I’m guessing this is harder than one would think … finding the next life step. Can you leave this all behind you? Do you even want to? And what do you, ultimately, want to do?

K.H.: I imagine that I will always be figuring out my next step to some extent. I’ve learned life is constantly flowing and changing.

Truthfully, I don’t think I can leave it behind and I don’t want to. I don’t live in the past, but I’m proud of the things I’ve done so far in my life. I miss my time at New Mexico every day. It was a great time. But when I graduated, I was ready to move on. There was/is a whole big world to explore.

Ultimately, I want to want to keep enjoying life and giving back.  Go surfing, eat some hot dogs, drink a brew and watch Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison.

J.P.: With all that’s been learned of late about football and head injuries, do you believe parents should let their kids play? Personally, I’m leaning No—because brains are more important than touchdowns. Your take?

K.H.: Brains are more important than touchdowns. I love this sport, but head injuries are really scary. I think we’ll continue to see changes in the game and more research coming out on the topic. I’ll be monitoring it closely and make a decision when I have kids of my own.

J.P.: I think a lot of men have trouble understanding this, so I’d love for you—if it’s OK—to explain. You didn’t report the sexual assault because you were afraid. Why? Of what? What does that fear feel like? And how do you advise women to get past that fear and go after their attackers?

K.H.: I could write a book on this question. Until I was attacked, I never dreamed that I wouldn’t report a rape if it happened to me. Of course, I never dreamed I would raped by a man I knew well. The act of rape is so inherently violent that your body goes through a range of reactions, often very quickly. You go into a fight/flight/numb response.

When you are being raped, your main thought is ‘get out alive” even when there isn’t a weapon present. It is terrifying feeling to lose control over your own body, it causes you to feel like you’ve lost control over everything. After getting away from my attacker, I was in such a state of shock that I lost track of all space and time. At some point hours later, I started trying to sort through my thoughts. I felt sick. I felt dirty. I was physically in pain. I felt like I had been demeaned to nothing. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had “allowed” this to happen. I scared to death that no one would believe me. I was scared that he would come hurt me. I was scared because “girls like me” didn’t get raped. I felt like it was my fault that it happened. I shouldn’t have gone over there. I shouldn’t have trusted him. I should have fought back harder. It was the worst experience of my life and I wanted to forget it as soon as possible. It was so bad.

It’s worth noting here that more than 70 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and that less than half are reported at all. I did report my rape after some time had passed, and it was brutal. I felt like I was reliving the whole experience over and over again. When I met with the DA to explore my options, I was stunned to learn that even if my rapist was convicted, he likely wouldn’t have served jail time. The DA was encouraging, but warned me that a trial would be brutal—that the defense would argue it was consensual, try to drag up my sexual history (though I was a virgin when I was raped, there were some pretty outrageous things said about me when I spoke out) and go after my character to try make a case that I was lying. Not prosecuting is something I still think about every day, but I also know that I made the right decision for me at the time and it has propelled me into working in the field so that I can create change for other victims. I advise other victims to tell someone, get help, and to always remember that they are not alone. One of the worst feelings as a victim is feeling totally alone and like no one can understand. But, there are a lot of us in this unholy sorority, our initiation was all the same, and we are here to support each other.

J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your life? Absolute lowest?

K.H.: Lowest moment would have to morning after the Columbine shootings. I woke up and realized it wasn’t a bad dream. I am from Littleton and have very close ties to the school. My life was changed forever that day.

Greatest moment: Conditioning on the sand hills in New Mexico. (I can’t believe I’m even saying this, they were so brutal). It would be 100 degrees and a group of us from the team would drive out to the middle of nowhere to run up a sand hill. You’d lose your footing after about 20 yards and then have to crawl and claw your way to move even a few feet up. We’d be grabbing onto each other so we didn’t slide back, we’d be pushing each other’s feet up and gut it out until we hit the peak. For me, it was a metaphor for life. I was still dealing with some tough stuff, but I knew that even when the ground was slipping beneath my feet, I was going make it up that damn hill (With a little help from the people who loved me). The view from the top was exhilarating.

J.P.: What’s the difference between great kickers, good kickers and mediocre kickers? I mean, we see it in the NFL every week—great kickers carrying teams to wins, crap kickers losing their jobs? From your experience, what separates the elite from the pack? And, in your mind, how good could you have become?

K.H.: Ah, well, I’m not done kicking yet, so that remains to be seen. I dealt with some serious mental game issues from my time at Colorado and have not hit my potential. That being said, I think the mental part of kicking is the most important and the aspect that separates kickers. The elite kickers are resilient—they are able to separate each kick and know that they are only as good as their next kick. They also keep their hits and misses in perspective.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KATIE HNIDA:

• Five reasons to make Littleton, Colorado his/her next vacation destination: Sunshine, blue sky, sunshine, blue sky and mountains.

• You’re walking down the street, Gary Barnett is approaching, randomly. What do you do?: Nod in acknowledgment and move along.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Twitter, chocolate milk, Kordell Stewart, Denzel Washington, MMA, catfish, David Gregory, Portland Trail Blazers, Dixie Chicks, Nas, “North Dallas Forty,” cheddar Goldfish, Kevin Mench: Chocolate milk (best post-workout drink) Kordell Stewart, catfish (the fish, not the Manti Te’o), Dixie Chicks, Kevin Mench, Denzel Washinigton, cheddar Goldfish, Portland Trail Blazers, MMA, David Gregory, Nas, North Dallas Forty (haven’t seen).

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Only once and it was because someone had some seriously noxious gas. I was sure we were all going to suffocate. I remember thinking that if I got out I should write a movie called “Farts on a Plane”—could be more scarier than “Snakes on a Plane.”

• Nicest thing someone has said to you in the last 365 days: You make me want to be a better person.

• Your dad, Dave, is a medical reporter for CBS. So, with that, can you still hate the media?: Yep, no problem there. That said, I have a great respect for true, thoughtful journalists.

• Five greatest kickers of all-time?: Jan Stenerud, Gary Anderson, Morten Andersen, Adam Vinatieri, Jason Elam.

• Celine Dion calls and wants you to star as Katie the Llama Kicker No. 12 in her new Las Vegas revue, “Celine and Llama Kicker No. 12.” You get $500,000 per year, but you have to dress as a llama and eat large quantities of hay. You in?: Hay’ll yeah!

• My daughter tells my I have a big nose and a droopy eyelid. Any advice?: Let her call you “hound dog.”

• In 20 words or less—why is Air Supply the greatest rap duo of all time?: Sorry, I’m all out of words.

kj
  • http://www.wendyhagen.net Wendy Hagen

    I first clicked on link from Twitter from my phone. It took me to that pic of the body builder girl. And I thought “Jeff, not feeling this QUAZ already. Surprised you thought I’d dig it. Those super body builders . . . hard to look at.” But then I found Katie. Ahhh… much better. Great interview. Interesting and enlightening. Solid, brave woman. I like it.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life