Northern Colorado backup punter found guilty in stabbing

GREELEY, Colo. -- Prosecutors said Mitch Cozad was so
obsessed with becoming Northern Colorado's starting punter that he
plunged a 5-inch-long knife into his rival's kicking leg.

A jury agreed, convicting Cozad of second-degree assault
Thursday. But he was acquitted of the more serious charge of
attempted first-degree murder.

The 22-year-old from Wheatland, Wyo., now faces up to 16 years
in a Colorado prison for the attack on starting punter Rafael

Defense attorney Joseph Gavaldon said he would appeal.

Mendoza was ambushed outside his apartment on the night of Sept.
11. He couldn't say who attacked him in the dimly lighted parking
lot. He testified the assailant was dressed in black from head to
toe and had a hood cinched up so only the eyes were visible.

Gavaldon argued it was another student at the university who
stabbed Mendoza, not Cozad.

"Absolute disappointment," Gavaldon said after the verdict was
read. He said he advised Cozad to stay strong and told him, "This
is not over."

The attempted murder charge could have meant a sentence of up to
48 years.

Cozad shook his head as the verdict was read and was led away in
handcuffs. He must remain in jail until his Oct. 2 sentencing.

His fiancee, Michelle Weydert, broke into uncontrollable sobbing
as deputies snapped the cuffs shut around Cozad's wrists.

His mother, Suzanne Cozad, shouted at prosecutors, "You all
know he passed the polygraph, you all know it."

Gavaldon told reporters that Cozad had taken a polygraph test
and had passed, but he said polygraph results are inadmissible in
Colorado courts.

Mendoza stared at Cozad as the verdict was read but said nothing
in the courtroom. Outside, he insisted Cozad had tried to kill him.

"I was almost killed and he got away with that," he said.

Mendoza said he knew the attempted-murder charge was a long shot
because there were no witnesses.

"Other than my testimony, it was going to be hard to prove
it," he said.

His uncle, Dave Medina, said the Mendoza family gathered after
the verdict and prayed for Cozad's family. His father, Rafael
Mendoza Sr., said he felt sorry for Cozad's parents.

"They've got a son going to jail," he said.

The younger Mendoza said he and his family have forgiven Cozad.

"We can't have hate in [our] hearts," he said. "If you go
through your life with hate in your heart, you're not a good person
at all. I hope we can put this behind us."

Cozad was a junior walk-on when he joined Northern Colorado's
football team last season after transferring from the University of
Wyoming. Over the six days of testimony and arguments, prosecutors
portrayed him as an ambitious but frustrated athlete who stabbed
Mendoza because he couldn't outplay him on the field.

Cozad's new teammates and a female friend said he wanted badly
to be the starter and was bitter when he was passed over. Northern
Colorado coaches said Mendoza, also a junior last season, was
unquestionably the better punter.

Gavaldon, who called only three witnesses, argued Cozad was a
gentle and laid-back student who wouldn't resort to a knife attack.

Gavaldon told jurors it was Kevin Aussprung, a student living in
the same dorm as Cozad, who stabbed Mendoza. After the verdict,
Gavaldon said Aussprung declined to take a polygraph test.

Aussprung adamantly denied he was the attacker.

His attorney, Bill Crosier, said Aussprung wanted to take a
polygraph but was angry and nervous over the suggestion that he
might be the attacker -- feelings he thought might cause the machine
to falsely indicate he was lying.

Crosier said he suggested Aussprung take the test another day,
but "the operator didn't call me again."

Cozad's father, Richard Cozad, said his son's case had been
exploited politically. He did not say by whom.

"We have a system of 'Observe the opportunity, evaluate the
potential, exploit it to the fullest,"' the elder Cozad said.
"It's not a system of justice, it's a system of politics."

Gavaldon said the charges against Cozad were too severe. "It's
ridiculous ... very unfair," he said.

District Attorney Ken Buck disagreed. "Absolutely, positively
not at all," he said.

Buck, a former college punter himself whose son is a freshman
linebacker at Army, said the verdict sends a message that Americans
take sports too seriously.

"The message is that it's never, ever appropriate to try to
hurt somebody, first of all, and second of all, over something as
stupid as starting on the football team," Buck said.

Mendoza agreed.

"I hope there's a message throughout the whole country that if
you don't get the starting spot, if you're not good enough, you
don't go to this length," he said. "You hit the weight room, you
run, you practice, you do whatever you can to be better on the
field. You don't try to take your teammate out. That's just not

Jury foreman Tim Scholfield read a statement on behalf of the
panel saying the case was difficult.

"This has not been an easy decision for us to make and none of
us are happy about having reached the conclusion we did," he said.
"We are all satisfied that with the information given this is the
correct verdict."

As news of the verdict circulated through the team, defensive
back Aaron Henderson said it placed the team at ease.

"That was the final nail on the coffin. It's now behind us,"
Henderson said. "Raf's going to go out and punt the crap out of
the football and we'll get on with our season."