Instead of basemen and pitchers, police officers and community members gathered around third base on the historic West Field in Munhall Saturday. They weren't there for love of the game -- they were there to support Clairton police Officer James Kuzak, who was injured and paralyzed in the line of duty a year ago.
Officer Kuzak was the beneficiary of the first Heroes Game, a charity event and tribute to the late Elijah "Lucky" Miller, a steelworker and Homestead Grays batboy. But a group of about 100 family, friends and community members had another surprise in store for Officer Kuzak. Fellow Clairton police Officer John Dunlap presented him with the July 2012 Officer of the Month award.
Officer Kuzak, 40, immediately teared up at the announcement. "It's not often I'm at a loss for words," he said.
Presented on behalf of Clairton and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the award "[honors] a deserving officer (or set of officers) at the local, state or federal level -- men and women who have gone above and beyond the call of duty," according to the organization.
Officer Kuzak was shot five times in the chest, arm and side while investigating a call in April 2011. The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, but his spinal cord was not severed. He has been undergoing intensive physical therapy sessions Monday through Fridays in the hope of regaining leg movement.
The community seemed to wholeheartedly support choosing Officer Kuzak as Officer of the Month.
Officer Dunlap, who was also injured in the line of duty, said that if you looked up the definitions of "hero" and "survivor," you would find Officer Kuzak's picture. "We should all be grateful to the men and women on the force," he said.
"He's put himself out there, he's sacrificed himself to others. It's an unfortunate circumstance that he's in that chair," said Beckie Steiner, who described Officer Kuzak as family. "But I think that anything we can do to raise awareness for police officers or firemen or anybody who risks their lives to help others ... is absolutely something we should do."
Ms. Steiner, 44, volunteered for the fundraising event, called the Heroes Game. Kevin Kirkland of the Post-Gazette and Cris Okulanis, officer Kuzak's girlfriend, organized the inaugural event. Nearly every aspect of it was donated -- the raffle prizes, the musical entertainment, the animals and the ballpark-themed food.
Although the event was geared toward raising money to pay for Officer Kuzak's physical therapy, Jessica Williams, a volunteer, emphasized a larger goal: "It's not about the money; it's about raising awareness for the injured officers in the area."
With this in mind, organizers and community members hope to create more charity events.
"I had such an outpouring from people -- friends, family, people I've never met," Officer Kuzak said of the charity baseball game. "Then to have companies get involved and donate this stuff, it just shows you what people are willing to do for the community. It's not just for me, it's for the community."
Before the start of the baseball games, Officer Kuzak described the spirit of the event.
"I just say have fun. Because that's all I want to do," he said with a smile.neigh_south
Emily Dobler: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3873. First Published June 10, 2012 4:00 AM