(Editor’s note: The following is a contribution from Katie Hnida, Los Angeles resident, University of New Mexico 2004 graduate, UNM football kicker in 2002-04. With the Lobos, she became the first woman to score in an NCAA game for a Football Bowl Subdivision team. Hnida, now 39, remained the lone woman to do so until Sarah Fuller kicked for Vanderbilt this past season.)
Dear New Mexico,
What a year.
But I know that you – that we – are going to be OK.
I know this because of the time I spent in New Mexico. I’ve been thinking a lot about that time recently, but then again, I always do this time of year. The month of February holds a painful anniversary for me because it’s the time I went public with the worst experience of my life.
Most of you may remember me as a kicker for the Lobos in the early 2000s, but not the backstory of the journey that brought me to the University of New Mexico.
I started my college education and athletic career at the University of Colorado, where my dream of becoming the first woman to play Division One college football quickly turned into a nightmare. A team with several players who verbally, physically and sexually harassed me. At the end of my first year, I was raped by one of the few teammates I trusted.
Shattered and in pieces, I left CU shortly after. But I still clung to my dream of playing. I loved football and kicking is at the very core of my being.
After sending out recruiting tapes, I visited four schools: Auburn, Cal, Ohio State and New Mexico. An interesting mix, but there was something about New Mexico and its no-nonsense coach, Rocky Long, that kept telling me it was the place I was meant to be.
Yet deep inside, I was terrified. What if New Mexico ended up being like CU? I quickly learned that it wasn’t.
My coaches and teammates didn’t just accept me, they embraced me. For us, having a female on the team just became normal. I lifted weights, ran sand hills and got yelled at just like one of the guys.
It was clear from the start that Coach Long had built a culture of respect that spanned across our entire program.
And there was no way to describe our passionate fan base that would fill our stadium every weekend.
One rainy night in 2003, we made college football history, when I kicked 2 extra points in our win against Texas State.
I say “we”, because the very fact that I was able to get onto the field that night was a collective effort by my team, our staff and you – our community. You made my dreams possible.
All the good happening in New Mexico helped me start to put those broken pieces back together, yet few people knew about what I had endured before getting to UNM. By 2004, ongoing scandals were happening at CU, with numerous women speaking about being sexually assaulted by football players.
I knew that I needed to break my silence and stand with them. I was aware that sharing my experience at CU would be a national story, but I wasn’t ready for the media onslaught that ensued.
It was devastating to be hit with the typical questions: “What was I wearing?”
“Why did you wait to go to police?”
And even “What did she expect, being the only girl with a bunch of guys?”
Sports columnists wrote op-eds calling me a liar. I even received death threats.
I also wasn’t ready for the toll coming forward took on me personally. I’d finally managed to start healing and it felt like I’d just ripped the wounds back open. My family was being harassed in Colorado and my father was away serving in Iraq. I was having nightmares and flashbacks that were as bad as immediately after I had been raped.
Except for this time, I wasn’t going through it alone. This time I had you, New Mexico.
Coach Long immediately took steps to make sure that I was safe and protected.
Another coach, Osia Lewis, literally snuck me away from the media gathered outside my apartment and took me into his home, where his wife and kids welcomed me like I was family. My teammates stood by me, some spending nights on my couch so I would feel safe.
Our community rallied around me. You wrote letters, you made signs, you sent me Frontier sweet rolls. You sought me out to tell me that I wasn’t alone in my experience. You took care of me so that I could finish my education and football career like every other student athlete.
After graduating from UNM, I went straight into advocacy work to fight gender violence. I’ve shared my story in 43 states, worked on developing anti-violence policies for everyone from the White House to Major League Baseball. I’ve spoken at fundraisers in small towns to Hollywood. Done presentations for college students to members of Congress.
None of this would have been possible without you.
It’s been 17 years since I came forward, so why am I writing this now? Because it’s never a bad time to say “thank you” one more time and because during these tough times, it’s the values I learned at New Mexico that carry me through.
Your support showed me the incredible power and strength that happens when a community bonds together. You taught me about resilience, about getting back up when you fall – there is no one stronger or tougher than New Mexicans. I found that the majestic beauty of our desert sunsets is only matched by the beauty of the spirits in your hearts. That the giving, the kindness and the uniqueness of our community is unmatched. And perhaps the important lesson of all – having the cojones – the courage to do the right thing, even when it’s hard or unpopular.
Yes, it’s been a tough time, and for some, even tougher. But you are New Mexico and together I know that we will make it through.