Sunday, August 19, 2007

Punter, Now Prosecutor, and Sadly Perfect Case


By HARVEY ARATON
Sports of The Times
August 20, 2007

Did you hear the one about the punter who prosecuted the punter who knifed the punter?

No joke. And in the context of a persistently disheartening summer in our tainted toy department, this may be the most warped example of bad sports, the furthest case of all from funny.

“I looked at this one and thought, What in the world is happening with sports in this country to make young people do some of the things they do?” said Ken Buck, the district attorney of Weld County, Colo., and an all-Ivy League punter at Princeton, class of 1981.

In addition to being mortified, how could Buck not be intrigued when the sorry saga of Rafael Mendoza and Mitch Cozad reached his desk in Greeley last September, a Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan remake substituting cleats for skates?

He knew he had to take an active role in prosecuting the case, he said, because not many fall into his hands like the perfect snap from center. And who else could explain to the jury what a three-step punter was, or that hang time had nothing to do with potential punishment?

“In an almost unfathomable way, the case was strange because of my background,” Buck said in a recent telephone interview.

In summary, he described it as follows:

Mendoza, a junior last season from Thornton, Colo., beat out Cozad, a walk-on transfer from Wheatland, Wyo., for the position of starting punter at the University of Northern Colorado. Teammates and others said Cozad was distressed by the result and determined to reverse it.

Early last season, Mendoza happened to spot Cozad, dressed in black, in the parking lot of Mendoza’s apartment complex. On the night of Sept. 11, Mendoza was attacked in the lot by a man dressed in black, his face hidden except for his eyes by a tightly drawn hood.

Mendoza, knocked on his back, testified that he fended off attempts by his attacker to thrust a five-inch knife into his chest only to be stabbed in his kicking leg, sustaining a gash that sidelined him for 10 days.

When another car entered the lot with its headlights shining, Mendoza’s assailant fled by car with taped-over plates. Cozad was spotted later by employees of a liquor store in the parking lot, pulling tape off Wyoming plates that contained the letters KIKR.

Found guilty by a jury of second-degree assault earlier this month, Cozad, to be sentenced Oct. 2, faces up to 16 years in prison. His family has promised to appeal, citing a polygraph test he passed that was not admissible evidence.

“For me, it was pretty clear what happened, except we didn’t get a conviction on a murder charge because there wasn’t a witness to say that Cozad had gone for Mendoza’s chest,” said Buck, who added: “What makes you so disgusted is that you realize what was done for something so stupid.”

For being the punter on a Big Sky Conference team that finished 1-9 last season and was outscored by 335-122? Are achievement levels and their corresponding realities so blurred now by the attendant pressures of a sports culture that has become pitifully imitative of the professional rat race?

As the Princeton punter, in a 1980 game against Harvard, Buck had one punt go a scant 30 yards, into a gale wind, from deep in his end zone with the Tigers leading, 7-3, late in the game. Lo and behold, there was a penalty against Princeton, Harvard made him punt again, the wind changed direction, and he crushed one downfield, about 75 yards.

He gratefully took this defining punter’s moment into the rest of his life and wishes young people could understand that for the overwhelming majority, sports is nothing more significant than an accumulation of cool memories.

Buck’s son, Cody, is a freshman linebacker at West Point. His daughter, Kaitlin, aspires to play college soccer. Based on the sum of his experiences, then and now, he says he believes specialization has made youth sports too serious and is devaluing the more important recreational and social benefits of competing.

“To be honest, I don’t think the kids playing football at Northern Colorado have it in perspective any better than the kids at Texas,” Buck said. “It’s ingrained in the culture, and especially in the parents.”

According to Buck, Cozad’s girlfriend revealed that he had often spoken of pressure from his mother to excel at sports, at punting. The case’s ending reinforced that point when, upon the whisking away of Mitch Cozad to jail, his mother, Suzanne, seemed to think this was one more event for which the overzealous sports parent creates a sideline scene before unpacking the snacks.

“The thing that got me is that as I was leaving the court, the Mendoza family was saying how they had prayed for Cozad while Cozad’s family was heckling me,” Buck said. “Then I found out that Cozad’s mother — believe it or not — had a pizza delivered to the jail.”

No joke. And the pizza’s hang time wasn’t too long.

“The guards ate it all,” Buck said.

E-mail: hjaraton@nytimes.com

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