Cleat Geeks

Women of Sports: Katie Hnida

It was a cold, rainy day and Katie couldn’t wait for the game to be over. Her shoes were soaked and her feet felt like they weighed a ton. “Kicker, get ready! You’re going in!” yelled one of her coaches. “What!?” Katie thought to herself. A rush of excitement distracted her from her cold heavy feet. She ran out onto the field to attempt her first extra point in a college game. Her excitement changed to horror as soon as she realized she didn’t have a holder.

The snap. The hold. The kick. It’s good! History was made. Despite the cold rain, big game jitters and confusion over who would hold, Katie became the first woman in the NCAA to score in a Division 1 game as she scored two extra points against Texas State on August 30, 2003.

Katie grew up in Littleton, Colorado with two younger brothers and a younger sister. They could always be found outside playing some kind of sport with the neighborhood kids. Katie’s football career began at Chatfield Senior High School. She played varsity football all four years.

While attending the University of Colorado in 1999-2000, Katie became the first woman to make the football team. She then transferred to the University of New Mexico where she played three seasons for the Lobos, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Psychology.

In 2010, Katie and I were both playing professional indoor football in the Continental Indoor Football League (CIFL). I had the honor of meeting Katie in person when our teams faced each other. Katie was with the Fort Wayne FireHawks and I was with the Chicago Cardinals. I recently interviewed Katie and asked her the following questions:

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Q: Growing up in Littleton Colorado, what was the sports scene like there?
A: Colorado is super outdoorsy. I grew up in a family where I had 2 younger brothers and a younger sister. All 4 of us kids where involved in sports. We grew up always outside doing something whether we were shooting hoops or playing roller hockey in the driveway, throwing around a football in the backyard or kicking around a soccer ball. Always playing, always doing something, we broke a lot of windows. We had the neighborhood crew who would come out and play touch-football games or soccer games. We played a lot of baseball games too. There is a lot of open space here, right near the mountains. Organized sports are big. My parents always joked that I was one of those kids who ran before they walked. I started as a really serious gymnast. And then I got tall. That was my main sport until I was in 5th grade and then I hit 5’4 and I was as tall as my favorite gymnast. We knew I wasn’t done growing because I was only 10.

Q: While attending Chatfield Senior High School as a senior you went 27 for 28 in extra point attempts. What helped you more as your football life went on, the 27 you made or the 1 that you missed?
A: The one that I missed was the last kick of my high school career, so that stunk – plus, I’m not convinced it actually wasn’t good. We had really short goal posts. It was not a terrible kick. To me, it looked like it went over the top of the goal posts. So it didn’t really bother me that much and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Although, it was kind of sad being my last attempt that I ever had in high school. But by that point, I was ready for college and raring to go. To this day, my high school coach still says it was good.

Q: You were named one of America’s “20 most influential teens” by Teen People magazine. Did that award mean more to you as a teen then, or does it mean more to you as an adult as you reflect back?
A: Sometimes I can’t even believe that happened. I kind of took it in stride at that time, because I was always worried about stuff distracting me and making sure I was staying grounded. I was always so focused on just going to play football and school. But all these years later it’s something that is kind of cool and fun to look back on, and hope that I have lived up to that expectation. I think that we all have the opportunity to change the world by the way we live our lives and treat other people. If in any way I’ve been able to change the world or make it better by doing what I love, then I am an extremely lucky person.

Q: Continuing on to your college years, University of Colorado Boulder was your first stop. Were there other colleges you considered before joining the Buffaloes?
A: They were my number one. I actually kicked in front of their head coach when I was a freshman in high school. They contacted me my junior year and we had been corresponding. I grew up rooting for CU. I loved them. So the idea of getting to play at my home school was it. My senior year I had some other schools contact me (Stanford, Notre Dame, Harvard), but CU was it.

Q: You had 2 different coaches during your time at Colorado; Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett. What are your opinions of those two men today?
A: I never actually had Rick as a coach. And obviously there were definitely some issues at CU with Coach Barnett. I’d like to think mostly that I’ve moved along. Everything that has happened there obviously still affects me and it has done a great deal in shaping who I am. It’s hard to believe that was 15 years ago. I think I spend a lot more time thinking about my coaches at New Mexico, who I’m still in touch with – they were (and still are) like family in a way. I was so blessed to get some really amazing men, especially my head coach, Rocky Long. My New Mexico coaches are scattered now coaching at different colleges. It’s really fun to get to see wherever they are. I’ve got a coach at TCU, another one at Grambling, Southwest Arkansas and a couple at San Diego State. It’s really fun to get to root for them and look for them on Saturdays on the sidelines.

Q: While at Colorado, you got sick and could not compete for a roster spot on the football team. You then transferred to the University of New Mexico, where on August 30, 2003 you made history. Please give me your recollection of that history-making day.
A: It was crazy! It was pouring wet. I had on like 3 layers of clothing and I was soaked. It was cold and I just wanted the game to be over that night. Then, the next thing I know, one of my coaches was like “you need to warm up, you are going in,” and I was like “what?!” My feet felt like they weighed 3,000 lbs. because the leather was soaked and wet. And I was like how am I going to move my leg? Everything happened so fast. I ran out onto the field and I didn’t have a holder. I started freaking out. I finally got here and now I don’t have a holder. I had so much adrenaline going that I don’t remember what it was like to kick the ball. I just remember running out there and after, hugging my holder and then all of my teammates.

Q: In your college football career, you have been to 4 Bowl Games; the Insight.com Bowl in 1999, the Emerald Bowl in 2004, and twice you have been to the Las Vegas Bowl. Which of the 4 was your best experience and why?
A: 2004 was my last season and it was really great time on that trip together. It was really special . . . but then again, they all were. Bowls are unique and so much fun. It’s like a vacation you go on with your best friends, where they give you presents and you get to play football!  I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to go to one, let alone 4. It’s really a neat thing. I have so many crazy bowl memories that are fun. At the Las Vegas Bowl, they had to build me a locker room out of beverage crates and a tarp. They even stuck my nameplate on it!

Q: What did you do to get psyched up for games?
A: Definitely listened to music. I was always out there with my iPod. I would also do a lot of visualization. I had a good warmup routine and was always ready to go. I would stretch like a maniac. Start stretching 4 hours before a game. I also say a prayer of gratitude before I hit the field. It keeps everything in perspective, and it keeps me conscious of the fact that I am very lucky to get to do something I love so much.

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Q: Any superstitions?
A: I try really hard not to, but I am a little bit. I’m definitely into routines and rituals, especially before a game. Sometimes I try to be the opposite of superstitious so it doesn’t affect my brain . . . your mental game is just as important as your physical game as a kicker. Funny thing – I grew up in Colorado and everybody talks about the altitude (we have a couple of kicking records set at Mile High Stadium, balls are supposed to travel further in the thinner air). But personally, I’ve never noticed a difference with how far my ball travels in terms of where I’m in altitude or sea level – and a part of that may be because I train my brain not to think about it.

Q: Your accomplishment as a woman in sports has paved the way for other women like me, and we thank you. What would you say to a high school, lady freshman, who is thinking of trying out for the men’s football team?
A: First, thank you so much. It truly gives me a lot of joy to think I could have played a small role in helping other women and girls have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. As for advice for others: Go for it! If you love it, and that’s what you want to do absolutely go for it, train hard! Study kicking, and go out and really enjoy yourself. It is such an awesome experience to get to have. I think it’s important for everybody when you find something that you really love to do, there’s nothing better in the world then being able to do it. Go for it, eat it up, love it, and enjoy it! Don’t get caught up in what “they” think. Who are “they” anyways?

Q: Your accomplishments in sports are well documented, but your accomplishments in your fight against sexual assault on women in sports are also well documented. Why did you decide to share your story, and speak out against something so close to you personally?
A: Initially, I never planned on speaking out. I never wanted to go public. Being raped was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I never wanted to share it publicly. They were having issues at CU with multiple women saying they had been abused by members of the team. A lot of it was getting blown off and ignored, and I realized because of the platform that I had, if I said something people would listen. We needed that to happen there. I ended up coming forward and telling my story. It triggered 5 or 6 other women who came forward after me who had also been raped in the same time period by that group of men. It was hard though, that’s a really tough thing to have out there. But it also is freeing to get to speak your truth and not be silent in times of turmoil. I think it’s really important to speak out when something unjust is happening, even if it’s not happening to you directly.

Q: You have written a book about your story. What is the title of the book? And who should buy it?
A: The name of the book is “Still Kicking: My Journey As the First Woman to Play Division I College Football.” Anybody who has a goal or a dream that they want to achieve. I think it’s a good read for that. Dreamers need to stick together. And I think that sharing our stories is so important in knowing that other people face obstacles too and that together we can come around. I also would recommend my book to survivors or any kind of trauma. There’s a little bit of writing about what I experienced at CU and being able to have life come back again. It was really hard for a long time, but it gets better. It’s so important for people to know that.

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Q: In your opinion, what is the next logical step the NFL should take to continue the fight against sexual assault in sports?
A: I think that right now, the education and the prevention, is really important. The NFL has some great people in there right now and I hope that they are listening to their expertise. They are doing a lot of work right now, but a lot of it is behind the scenes and real change doesn’t happen overnight. Hopefully we will see some concrete changes here in the next couple of years and have the NFL be somewhat of a leader in helping end violence against women and sexual violence. That said, I’d like to see some of the individual teams doing work in their communities with this issue – their influence is huge. I’d also like to see them have a high standard for the men that they are signing – such as with Greg Hardy.

Q: Jameis Winston was probably the most recent high profile sexual assault case in college sports. As he becomes more successful in his NFL career, how do people like yourself and others not allow the sexual assault allegations to just disappear?
A: I think we are going to see what happens with the civil suit there. Not saying that he is guilty of rape, but with Winston it is important to remember the reason he was not charged was because of insufficient evidence, which does not equal “found innocent.” There are a few takeaways from that case that we need to remember: how poorly it was handled by the local PD; and how we need to make sure that sports stars aren’t given a free pass when being investigated. It also should really be a gut-check for fans. Do you care about the character of the players you root for on the field? Do you automatically assume someone is innocent because they play for your team? It’s always important to remember that sports should never be more important than someone’s life.

Q: Lastly, I know you work with several great charities and do several speaking engagements every year. If people want to get involved in the fight against sexual assault against women in sports, which charities would you suggest they join, and if someone wants to see you in person, and hear more about your story, how can they do that?
A: To list a few, PAVE, Sports and Society MVP at Northeastern University (which is basically using sports for social justices, which is really cool because sports can influence our society so much why not use the power of it for good); National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (NCAVA) Joyful Heart Foundation; Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and Futures Without Violence. It’s fantastic to learn more about these issues and to be able to donate and know that your money is directly going to help survivors. My website, www.katiehnida.com, has a contact section or you can follow me on Twitter at @katiehnida.

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