In this NBC News exclusive interview, “Today” host Katie Couric talks with Katie Hnida, who made history by becoming the first female kicker to score in Division I college football. But that may not be the reason you remember her name. Last February, Hnida came forward with allegations that she was raped by a fellow player at the University of Colorado, and sexually harassed by other teammates.
Honor roll student, athlete and homecoming queen — Hnida seemed to have it all. The Colorado standout, who excelled as a place kicker on her high-school football team, dared to dream what many thought was impossible: becoming the first woman ever to play for a Division I college team.
Hnida has now graduated from school and is speaking publicly about what happened to her for the first time. In an exclusive interview, she explained how one minute changed her life forever.
Katie Hnida: I'd rather look back and think, you know, well at least I tried rather than, boy, I wished I tried, or what would've happened if I hadn't tried.
It was her goal to suit up for her home state school, the University of Colorado. She made the team as a walk on in the fall of 1999, but beyond the flashbulbs and photo-ops, she says she endured her own personal nightmare.
Hnida: The first day of practice on my way to the locker room I was surrounded by five men who were much bigger than I was asking me sexual questions and other things of that nature.
Katie Couric: That was the first day. Did it continue after that?
Hnida: It continued throughout the season, sometimes escalating into other things. A lot of sexual things going on, where we would be in a huddle and guys would rub up against me. There were a few times when I would be alone in the hallways and guys would constantly be asking me if we could hang out more than as teammates and they literally would ask me for oral sex, and would occasionally expose themselves. Remember, I'm an 18-year-old kid and I'm coming into this, and I was just terrified. I was scared out of my mind. I did not know what to do.
Couric: One thing you could've done is, complain to authorities or register a complaint to the authorities or the officials. The coach then, and now, is Gary Barnett.
Hnida: I did not have a very open and communicating relationship with Coach Barnett on field. He didn't want me on the team from the start. And I knew that. So the last thing that I wanted to do was to go to a man who was unfriendly to me.
But according to Hnida, the worst was yet to come. In the summer of 2000, she says she was sexually assaulted by one of her teammates.
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Hnida: It was a friend that I was very close to, who I trusted very much. One night I went over to his house to just watch a game. And we were sitting on the couch, and he started to kiss me, and I'm kind of, you know, a little bit like, back off, this isn't quite OK. And then, the next thing I knew he was on top of me. And it happened.
Couric: He raped you.
Hnida: He raped me.
Couric: You protested.
Hnida: I, yeah.
Couric: You told him to stop.
Hnida: As soon as he was on top of me. I said, no. What are we doing? I don't want to be doing this. No. And I pushed on him. I literally pushed up onto his shoulders. And said, stop!
Couric: Is it hard to think back on that time?
Hnida: It is. It's been five years, and it's still terrifying. It's still something that I wake up with and I deal with. It was, you know, a minute that has changed my life forever.
Couric: After it happened, did you scream at him? Did you say, you raped me. What happened?
Hnida: The phone rang. And for some reason, he picked it up. And I hightailed it out of there. I just ran through the door. Didn't say anything to him. Got into my car. You know, and was shaking. I backed my car into a pole. I went home. And I just sat there for a while. And the fact that it was a teammate just made it all the much worse. Because I knew that I couldn't go to Coach Barnett. I mean, I can't even imagine, you know, how he would have reacted. I literally was afraid that he would have kicked me off the team.
Couric: Not only did you not talk to Coach Barnett, but you didn't go to the police.
Couric: You didn't report this to anyone.
Hnida: I was scared that if I filed a police report or if I had gone and done something that, you know, immediately the university would have gotten involved. And the media storm would have just blown up.
Couric: How old were you, Katie?
Hnida: I was 19 years old.
Couric: And you were a virgin?
Hnida: And I was a virgin.
Katie Hnida said she was terrified and ashamed. She told no one, not even her parents.
Couric: Did you come across this man afterwards?
Hnida: I did. I thought the best way to deal with it was to just pretend like it didn't happen. I wanted to keep playing football. All I wanted was to be a football player. And I didn't want to bring up something like that because I thought it might mess up my chances, to be quite honest. As sick as that sounds, I wanted this so badly.
So Katie Hnida said she kept her secret. But the next year, sick with mono, and she claims, deeply depressed, she didn't make the team and dropped out of school. She eventually joined the squad at the University of New Mexico in 2002. Her experience there was the polar opposite of her time at the University of Colorado. She says her coaches and teammates were nothing but supportive and treated her like the team mom.
At the same time, the scandal at University of Colorado escalated. Stories of enticing recruits at parties with young women and call girls had been circulating for some time. But then in February of last year, three women came forward with sexual assault allegations against two recruits and one player. As a result, Katie Hnida says, she could remain silent no longer.
Hnida: When I heard that there were rape allegations, I literally went to my toilet and I threw up. Because I was so sickened, and just absolutely torn by it. I was tired of hearing, "Oh, no. There's no problem, no problems at all," because I knew there was. I knew that there was stuff up there happening that was inappropriate — that was completely unacceptable.
In a statement given to NBC News, the University of Colorado said, "The university has reached out to Katie to encourage her to provide information about her assault so that appropriate action could be taken. We remain steadfast in that we will not tolerate sexual harassment or exploitation in our athletic department or anywhere in the university."
Couric: Do you plan to press charges?
Hnida: Actually, I am in the middle of an ongoing investigation with both the attorney general and with some of the Boulder law enforcement, so I can't comment on any of that right now. But this is far from over. This investigation is very far from over.
Tomorrow: Katie Hnida will share the shocking story of how her former coach at the University of Colorado reacted to her allegations, and what she hopes will happen as a result of her coming forward.
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