Cook: Take back the night

Cook: Take back the night

October 23rd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

• What: Take Back the Night Event

• Where: Oak Street Amphitheater on UTC Campus

• When: 7 p.m. Katie Hnida speaks, followed a candlelight march through Fortwood led by Jessica Cookston, a local rape survivor who will also share her story.

Peyton Manning? The Minister of Defense? Mr. Montana? Love 'em like white on rice.

But one of the most important football players of all time is a right-footed former prom queen named Katie, whose story kicks the AstroTurf out of every other football tale you've ever heard.

It begins in Colorado, when Katie Hnida (the H is silent) dreamed a little dream: to become the first female to score in a major college football game. Through high school she goes, turning heads as a kicker -- her senior year, she nailed 27 of 28 extra points and went 3-for-3 on field goals -- while also earning all-county awards, honor roll grades and a prom queen crown. (It was halftime; she had to wear her football jersey during the ceremony).

Colorado named her Sportswoman of the Year. Teen People magazine said she was the teen most likely to change the world.

She'd have to go through hell to do it.

In 1999, she walked on as a kicker for the University of Colorado. She tells the story of how the coach turned a blind eye while her teammates began systematically harassing her: taunts, verbal abuse, vile jokes. In the huddle. On the practice field. Some groped; others exposed.

Then, one night, a teammate raped her.

"I was just an 18-year-old kid," she said.

Tonight, Hnida will be speaking at the Take Back the Night march, a public demonstration against sexual and domestic violence. Sponsored by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults and the Women's Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the 7 p.m. event will also feature a candlelight march through Fortwood led by local rape survivor Jessica Cookston.

"I know there will be victims in the audience," said Hnida. "There is this darkness you face. It's so dark and so bad. For me to have come out the other side and know there is light is a huge, huge thing I want to share."

One in six women have been victims of a rape or attempted rape, Partnership officials said. In 2012, their Rape Crisis Center provided 300 women a safe place to find counseling, trained medical staff, forensic examinations, court advocacy and solidarity ... all for free. Their 24-hour hotline: 423-755-2700.

"Seventy-five percent of people who are raped are molested by somebody they know," Hnida said.

After her rape, she went silent. Even though she had a family she loved and trusted, even though she's cement-block tough, Hnida stayed silent for nearly a year. Why? Watch what happened when she did go public.

"It was like being raped again," she said.

Death threats. Lies. Phone calls.

"They slam you. Call you names. Call you a slut, no matter what," she said.

University officials?

"They were willing to make up stuff, willing to do whatever," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

Rape carries this double injury: The immediate, physical violence is followed by a cultural shaming of sorts. Imagine getting sexually attacked, and then you report the crime only to find no one believes you.

"Coming forward ended up being just as traumatic as the rape," she said.

Slowly, with help from family, friends and doctors, Hnida recovers and returns to the football field, this time for University of New Mexico.

On Aug. 30, 2003, New Mexico is winning over Texas State-San Marcos. Near the end of the game, Hnida takes the field. Kicks one extra point, then another, and becomes the first woman to score points in a Division I football game. Her shoes and jersey are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

"This team was a family to me," she said.

See the difference between her time at Colorado and New Mexico? It's all about leadership: the things people in authority allow to happen, and the things they don't.

"When I got to New Mexico, Coach [Rocky] Long was so amazing," she said. "It was a big deal for him that we respected everyone. From people in the equipment office who washed our clothes for us to secretaries upstairs to starting quarterbacks to the third string linebacker."

These days, Hnida, 32, speaks to campuses and groups across America, telling her story and pushing back against sexual violence and the culture that encourages it. She's written a book and works closely with Joyful Heart Foundation, started by Law and Order's Mariska Hargitay.

In 2014, Hnida's making a comeback. The Arena Football League, or Canada. Maybe Europe.

"As long as the leg works," she said.

We'll be cheering, for lots of reasons.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.