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School Hit by Team’s Troubles

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, the University of Northern Colorado upgraded its NCAA sports affiliations to Division I.

It meant prestige and, if things went well, attention.

Now, it has the attention:

A well-publicized player knifing, a bar fight, an illegal practice, another assault.

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Not exactly what school officials had in mind.

“We wanted our athletics to mirror our academics,” university President Kay Norton said. “Top of the line.”

Instead, the football team has been atop the police blotter.

In September, Northern Colorado made national news when its punter, Rafael Mendoza, was stabbed and police announced days later that they believed his assailant was teammate Mitch Cozad.

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It was Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan all over again, with investigators surmising that Cozad, the backup punter, had attacked Mendoza seeking his place on the team.

Then, just in the last 10 days, three more revelations made headlines:

On Oct. 8, Jacob Carlson, a senior defensive tackle and team co-captain, was arrested and cited for disorderly conduct for his part in a bar fight. It was the type of incident that might have happened around any college town in the country on a given night, except for the part when Carlson told police that the fight started when he told a Latino man at the bar, “I don’t like Mexicans.”

Then, last Wednesday, the school announced it had reported to the NCAA that three assistant football coaches had been suspended for their involvement in at least one illegal practice in March.

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Which was followed on Sunday by reserve fullback Garrett Bliss’ arrest on suspicion of third-degree assault after allegedly getting into a fight with a man over text messages sent to Bliss’ girlfriend.

All of which has led to quite a buzz around this campus of 13,000 students that had hopes of being recognized academically and athletically alongside the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State in Fort Collins. The three schools are located within 70 miles of each other.

“We’ve always been sort of the little-known stepchild. But we feel as if our academics don’t take a backseat and neither should our sports teams,” school president Norton said, adding, “It’s sports that makes people notice.”

This kind of notice is not what Coach Scott Downing anticipated when he left an assistant’s post at Nebraska last spring to take over the Northern Colorado program.

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Downing says he had no knowledge of the rule-breaking March workout and that he is “perplexed” by the recent developments. “I’ve only been here eight months,” he said Monday. “To have all this happen, it’s a little tough to take.”

The coach is quick to point out that he didn’t recruit any of the players who have been in trouble. He wouldn’t speak specifically about any of the incidents but said he wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior by any member of his team.

“We’ve spoken to them already about what has happened recently,” Downing said.

Mendoza, the victim in the stabbing, was never in any trouble with the team.

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His teammates, Mendoza said, “stood with me through this all.”

But even Mendoza, a soft-spoken junior, has not escaped notice in connection with one of the most recent arrests.

Carlson was born and raised in Greeley and his alleged “I don’t like Mexicans” remark touched a nerve among many in this city of 92,000 located about 50 miles northeast of Denver. According to the 2000 census, Greeley was about 30% Latino. And according to residents, there is simmering racial tension.

Being that Mendoza is Mexican American, his support of teammate Carlson drew attention.

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“I know the character of Jake,” Mendoza said. “I think Jake is a good person.”

Priscilla Falcon, a professor of Mexican American studies at the university, said, “I wish Mr. Mendoza would have at least said he was disappointed in the words of his teammate.”

Falcon said that upon reading newspaper accounts of the Carlson bar fight she was shocked by the “abrasive and abusive verbiage that came from a football player” representing the university. She and others met with Norton on Monday.

“This incident is just a symptom of the way the university has stayed insulated from the issues in the city,” she said.

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Horatio Soto, a junior sociology major who works at the Cesar Chavez Cultural Center on campus, described the university as “a little island in the community, and when you’re on the island you forget about what some people think of you.

“When you get in the community, when you go to restaurants or clubs and you’re wearing baggy jeans and have dark skin, people look at you and make assumptions about you,” the Mexican immigrant added. “Sometimes I’m too shy to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I go to college and I work two jobs to pay for it.’

“So it makes a lot of us angry when a football player, who is representing my university in public, who wears a jersey representing my school, says such a thing in public. He’s not too shy to say, ‘I hate Mexicans.’ ”

Trish Escobar, a 17-year Greeley resident who is an administrative assistant at the cultural center, said racial tensions have been heightened by rigorous discussions about immigration issues stemming from a recent proposal to bring a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to the city.

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“Suddenly I don’t feel comfortable in my community,” Escobar said. “On both sides the discussions haven’t been as friendly. The dialogue hasn’t been as polite. So I am not at all surprised by what I heard out of the mouth of a Greeley football player.”

There is no indication that the attack on Mendoza was racially motivated. Police say it was simply a case of a backup player going overboard to eliminate the person in front of him.

Mendoza didn’t see his attacker, so for days he believed he was a victim of random violence. He was home in Denver, recuperating with his family, when his mother spoke to police investigators.

“I was standing with my crutches, eating some dinner when my mom answered the phone,” Mendoza said. “She got a funny look on her face and when she hung up she told me it was the police. She told me the police told her they were sure Mitch had something to do with my stabbing.

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“My own teammate. I had taken him to dinner a couple of weeks before. I had paid for it myself. I was physically sick to my stomach.”

But he says he holds no bitterness toward Cozad.

“My parents stressed to me from almost the moment I was stabbed that I needed to forgive whoever did it,” Mendoza said.

“Even when we found out it was my teammate they told me I needed to forgive.”

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Prosecutors dropped a second-degree assault charge against Cozad, saying they are still investigating and are looking for an accomplice. But Cozad has left school and reportedly gone home to Wheatland, Wyo.

Cozad’s attorney, Joseph Gavaldon, did not return a phone message for this story but told the Associated Press last weekend, “It’s an uncomfortable state for Mr. Cozad. He’s in limbo. The waiting has had an effect on him. He’s trying to get his life together.”

Mendoza said he’s moved on. He missed only one game after the stabbing, although two days after the Bears’ last game he was limping and wearing an ice pack around the wound on his leg.

“I just want to get better as a kicker and keep playing football,” Mendoza said.

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Downing said Mendoza is “a great example of a college student and athlete.”

Norton said she is disappointed by the negative publicity sports has brought the school but is unwavering of her support in athletics.

“We have to get better and we will,” she said. “I want the headlines to be about something else.”

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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