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Blocked from reality

The sad saga of punter accused of stabbing teammate

Posted: Friday September 22, 2006 2:25PM; Updated: Sunday September 24, 2006 12:01PM
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Backup punter Mitch Cozad (left) allegedly stabbed Rafael Mendoza (right) in the thigh of his punting leg.
Backup punter Mitch Cozad (left) allegedly stabbed Rafael Mendoza (right) in the thigh of his punting leg.

By David Epstein, SI.com

Two weeks ago, Mitch Cozad, the backup punter at the University of Northern Colorado, asked head coach Scott Downing what he had to do to get some playing time. Downing told him simply to "work harder." But instead of Cozad working on his kicking, police say that he came up with a violent plan.

On Sept. 13, Cozad was arrested for allegedly stabbing Rafael Mendoza, UNC's starting punter, in the thigh of his punting leg two nights earlier. According to the police report, Cozad fled the scene of the stabbing and pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store, where an employee became suspicious of someone removing tape that covered up a license plate. The Dodge Charger, with the license plate 8-KIKR, was registered to Cozad's mother, Suzanne.

Both Suzanne and Mitch Cozad declined to comment for this story. Mitch is out on $30,000 bail and in his hometown of Wheatland, Wyo., under his mother's supervision.

If Cozad didn't heed his coach's advice to work harder, perhaps it's because he'd heard it before. In high school he was a tireless worker but had little to show for it.

"His work ethic was tremendous," says Mick Cochran, who worked with Cozad as an assistant coach at Wheatland High, a school of about 350 students in a town of about 3,500. "He did everything a kicker is supposed to do."

Cozad arrived at summer practices early and left late. He went to kicking camps and took lessons from NFL veterans. He had a private coach, kept a stable of his own fresh footballs and inflated them to the brim so they'd rocket off his foot into the clouds. He even had one pair of shoes for kicking and another for punting.

During his junior year, Cozad was stuck on the bench while quarterback Corey Bramlet, who would go on to star at the University of Wyoming, routinely split the uprights. By Cozad's senior year, though, Bramlet had graduated and it was Cozad's time to shine.

Former Wheatland head coach Paul Miller had other ideas. He wanted Cozad, who was 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, to play on the offensive line. Cozad resisted so vehemently that he took the kicking tee and wouldn't let anybody else use it. After all, who's ever heard of a tackle becoming a big-time kicker? Mitch's mother certainly hadn't.

According to people who know the Cozads, Suzanne Cozad was never far from her son's kicking dreams. Friends and neighbors described Suzanne as a competitive person.

"She was very strong-willed on her son's behalf," says Cochran.

Beyond the camps, the shoes and the balls, Suzanne started showing up at practice regularly. Miller, who now coaches in South Dakota, told the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune that Suzanne was obsessed with her son's kicking success.

Mother and son kept mostly to themselves at practice, according to players and coaches, staying on one end of the field while the offense and defense ran through plays on the other. That setup didn't go over so well with Coach Miller.

"Miller was adamant," Cochran said, "that we're a small school, and we can't have just kickers exclusively." Cochran says that Mitch was a quiet kid, and would generally open his mouth only to ask: "Is Coach Miller going to give me a chance?" Cochran would just tell him to "keep working."

But the quiet young kid "flipped out" by running off with the kicking tee, according to a teammate, when Miller tried him on the offensive line. Cochran says that Mitch was simply never interested in any part of football other than kicking. Unlike many high school kickers, who play multiple positions or are too small to play linebacker or are recruited from the soccer team, "I think Mitch's dream was just kicking," Cochran says, "and playing in college." Cozad had played baseball as a kid, had tried karate and even played a bit of basketball in high school, but nothing got him excited like kicking.