GREELEY, Colo. (AP) – Rafael Mendoza still worries when he hears footsteps, and he tenses up if he catches a shadowy figure out of the corner of his eye.

Northern Colorado’s punter is struggling after being stabbed in his kicking leg a month ago, which led to the arrest of teammate Mitch Cozad, a backup punter.

Mendoza said he’d like to put the attack behind him, but the flashbacks keep coming.

“It’s been tough, and scary,” Mendoza told The Associated Press. “It’s hard for (my family), it’s hard for me, it’s hard for them wondering what’s going to happen. But I know they (authorities) are doing their job. They’re doing everything they possibly can to let justice run its course.”

The attack in the parking lot of Mendoza’s Evans apartment complex on Sept. 11 drew national attention and comparisons to the attack by Tonya Harding’s hitman on Nancy Kerrigan.

Cozad was accused of stabbing Mendoza in a bid to win the starting job for the Bears. But prosecutors have dropped a charge of second-degree assault, saying they need more time to investigate the case and still are seeking an accomplice.

Things haven’t been easy for Cozad, either. His attorney, Joseph A. Gavaldon, said Cozad, who returned home to Wheatland, Wyo., to be with his family, has all but been convicted in the court of public opinion. Cozad is trying to get on with his life, the attorney said, but the threat of charges being refiled at any moment remains.

Same with Mendoza. He is looking for a new place to live, one that has a better-lit parking lot.

“When he was there, the person that attacked me – if it was Mitch or not, whatever – they were wearing all black and I didn’t see them until right at the last second,” Mendoza said. “What could I have done to stop him from even stabbing me in the first place?”

Sitting on a bench after practice Thursday, Mendoza brought his hands to his face as he recounted what happened. He pulled up to his apartment complex and was walking away from his car when he turned back to lock it. As he did, Mendoza was hit from behind and stabbed when he tried to fight back.

“It was one of those things where I never was really looking behind my back,” Mendoza said. “I never worried about anything. Now, after this happened, every time I get out of my car I look around to see if there’s anyone walking around, anybody suspicious.”

Asked if he thought it was Cozad, Mendoza nodded.

“With everything that we’ve found out, I have no doubt it was him,” Mendoza said.

Police have said a liquor store employee called police not long after the attack to report two men were removing tape from the license plates of a nearby car. Once removed, the employee saw the license plate number read “8-KIKR,” helping lead police to Cozad’s family.

According to the arrest affidavit, another kicker on the team told police he provided Mendoza’s address to Cozad the week before, thinking he was interested in renting an apartment. That same week, a friend of Cozad’s said he “was extremely upset about issues with his football team,” according to the affidavit, and that Cozad told her “to lie to police and to his mother about his whereabouts on the evening of September 11.”

“It’s shocking,” Mendoza said. “I never thought he felt that way about me. Now it’s like, ‘Why?’ What did I ever do to him? It makes me take a different look at life and how I am toward people. I never said anything wrong to him.”

Cozad’s attorney declined comment when asked if his client had anything to do with the attack.

“There’s no case,” Gavaldon said.

He said he isn’t surprised the investigation is slow to develop or that the initial charge was dropped.

“The investigation didn’t produce what they expected,” Gavaldon said. “So they put themselves in a position where they had more time (to file more charges). Mr. Cozad lies in wait. He has no control.”

However it pans out, Mendoza already has forgiven the person responsible.

“You can’t hate in your heart,” said Mendoza, who received more than 200 e-mails of support from around the country. “He did what he did. He did whatever to his own life, and to mine, but he’s going to pay for it. All I can really do is forgive him and move on.”

Mendoza was back on the field two weeks after being stabbed and had a 58-yard punt in his return against Western Illinois.

But he said the leg is only 70 percent of what it was. The stabbing struck a muscle in his hamstring, and he said he can’t sit down on his right side without discomfort.

“I’ve still got a lot to work on,” said Mendoza, who averages 38.8 yards on 24 punts this season. “I’m seeing improvement, but it’s slow.”

Mendoza said he’s been feeling down lately, but he’s trying to get back to the trusting, smiling person he was before the stabbing. He said he might seek counseling after the season.

“I’m trying to get back to my life and not let this stop me,” he said. “I’m sure I can. It’s going to take some time.”


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