This story is part of Teen Vogue’s Girls in the Game series with Jessica Luther, which examines the role that gender plays in football today.
Katie Hnida didn’t mean to get into football. Back then, she was a 13-year-old youth soccer player with strong legs and a powerful kick. She got her first taste of the game as an eighth grader in Colorado, when she was out tossing a ball with her dad and younger brother. Katie propped the ball up and sailed it so far into the darkness that her father, Dave, joked that she could take up a new career in kicking if soccer didn’t pan out.
Maybe it was her father’s comment that pushed her to squeeze into the only vacant seat at Chatfield Senior High School’s football team meeting a few days later, surrounded by about 100 male classmates. Katie thought she slid into the room unnoticed until the head coach called out to her, “Are you lost? Are you looking for the girls lacrosse meeting?”
“I was like ‘No, I’m here for football,’” Katie, now 35, recalls to Teen Vogue. “And the entire room, which had gone silent, burst into laughter. I could hear one guy say, ‘Why did she even come?’ I was making a bit of a statement whether I wanted to or not.” While it might not have been Katie’s intention to make a statement, she has spent the 22 years since that meeting breaking down gender barriers. She didn’t intend this; she was just a kid who wanted to play. Her journey to making history would begin — but not end — in 1999 at the University of Colorado, which provided a place for her as a freshman walk-on. Katie was the first woman to ever play for CU, the second woman to ever dress in a college football uniform in the U.S., and would eventually become the first woman to score in a NCAA Division I-A, now known as the Football Bowl Series, football game.
The large state school with a proud football tradition seemed like the perfect fit. Until it wasn’t. The “Athletes get anything they want” culture was potent at CU at the time, Katie says, and that “anything” included women.
She couldn’t have prepared to be the target of objectification and sexual exploitation. Katie was raised in an environment where she was told that she could be whatever she wanted to be and do whatever she wanted to do. Maybe some would call her sheltered, she says, but the first time she remembers facing discrimination on the field because of her gender was when she arrived at CU.
“At that time, the [USA] women won the first World Cup, so it really was a big ‘can do,’ exciting time for women athletes,” Katie says.
“So much of the harassment [at CU] was gender-specific. The names that they called me were gender-specific. Obviously, the sexual harassment [was because of my gender].”
Katie says her teammates made comments about her body, touched her without permission, and dropped their pants to expose themselves to her. Some of her teammates kicked balls at her head. And that was just the beginning. One night during the summer between her freshman and sophomore year when she was watching television at her teammate’s house, she says one of them — whom she considered a friend — starting kissing her and then forced himself on her and raped her.
“For me, growing up, I always thought that rape would be some guy jumping out of the bushes with a knife,” Katie says. “So I was always careful not to walk alone or to leave my drink unattended. I thought I did all the right things.”
She continues: “My rape whistle was probably a foot away from me on my key chain.”
She tried talking to CU’s chancellor with the end goal of making the school aware of what had happened so that the school could make internal changes, but she decided not to pursue legal action. But Katie says nothing was done, and so she left CU in 2001 and remained quiet about her assault for nearly four years. After a year of therapy and taking classes at a junior college, and after sending out film of her kicking to 80 different schools, Katie transferred to the University of New Mexico. She found a much different environment there, as she felt she was “more a part of the team” and felt more comfortable with her Lobos teammates. “(At New Mexico), there was this culture of people respecting anyone on the team whether that was a fourth string linebacker or the quarterback or the people who did our laundry,” Katie says. “And it was expected that we better be respectful and treat everybody fairly and equally.”
And on Aug. 30, 2003, Katie kicked two extra points against Texas State-San Marcos to go down in history as the first woman to score in a Division I-A NCAA game.
“One of my teammates started bugging my coach and saying, ‘Is this the night that Katie is going to make history?’ And my coach was like, ‘No, go away,’” Katie laughed. “But more of the guys joined in and like 20 of my teammates went to bat for me. It was exciting and it was great, but it really made me realize that it was a whole journey and the best part about it was being with my teammates and the coaches.”
With the help of her Lobos teammates, Katie started to heal.
Two years after Katie left Colorado, other young women came forward and said that members of the football team had assaulted them. At that point, Katie and her parents followed up with the chancellor, requesting that he investigate her allegations. In February of 2004, Katie went public with her story in Sports Illustrated, although she never named her alleged attacker. Instead of supporting her, Katie’s former coach Gary Barnett responded by saying, “Katie is a girl, and not only is she a girl, she was terrible. There’s no other way to say it.”
Ultimately, Barnett was suspended for his comments and, over time, it became clear that Colorado’s issues with sexual assault extended far beyond one “terrible” girl. In 2005, a sealed grand jury report that contained new allegations was leaked. The document stated that an assistant football coach at CU sexually assaulted two female trainers and detailed other inappropriate and illegal behavior within the program. Between 1997 and 2005, nine women claimed to have been assaulted by a CU player or recruit.
Katie wants to make one thing clear: She’s more than a victim. She says that “being an athlete is what I do. Rape is something that happened to me.” She’s still a player, and not just any player — her shoes and jersey hang in the College Football Hall of Fame. Sometimes those two identities, athlete and survivor, are in direct conflict with each other. She loves the game, and while she takes issue that women’s involvement in football is mostly from the sidelines as cheerleaders, and that she feels the sport promotes violence both on the field and off, she still sat down and yelled at the television as Clemson routed Alabama 35-31 in this year’s title game.
She also flies around the country giving motivational speeches with the goal of letting other young women know they are not alone.
“You decide the experiences that define you. For me, especially with my story being out in the media, rape victim was attached to it,” Katie said. “It’s still hard for me that people recognize my name more in conjunction with being a rape victim or a rape survivor versus any of my athletic achievements. I make sure that all different parts of me are out there and valued.”
She laughs that her message could be cliché, but in her speeches she encourages young women to put themselves out there to follow their dreams, even if that means shaking up the status quo. She believes in falling down, but getting back up and trying again, over and over.
And in her words, football is still the love of her life. And it probably always will be.
Even today, “the itch is still there,” Katie, who is now an author, speaker, and anti-violence trainer, said. “The great thing about being a kicker is that we can go on forever. Sometimes I’m not sure if my career is fully over or not. I know I never reached my full potential, so you never know, you may see me back out there.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).