Jim Kuczo and Jim Kammerman met in the sixth grade in Norwalk. The alphabetic nature of elementary school seating meant they’d often sit next to each other. The boys bonded. They became best friends. Playing, coaching, their love of lacrosse ensured the friendship would never end.
When Kuczo’s son Kevin, died by suicide on Feb. 4, a victim of depression, a victim in many ways of the COVID pandemic, Kammerman badly wanted to do something.
“I was at a loss,” Kammerman said. “My best friend had such a tragedy in his life and I didn’t know what to do about it. It was tough. One thing was to spread Kevin’s message to be kind to each other. That’s what I decided I could do.”
Kevin Kuczo, who turned 17 on Jan. 21, was a junior at Fairfield Warde. He played on the football and lacrosse teams. He was smart, smart enough to carry the load of four advanced placement classes. He was a great kid.
“He wasn’t the greatest athlete, the superstar, but he really enjoyed the team aspects of athletics,” Jim Kuczo said. “He was a great teammate.”
Kevin loved being part of the “Legends of Doom” workouts in Fairfield. Happy his teammates were working hard for their goals. Happy to be part of it.
“He always cared about others,” Jim Kuczo said, “probably more than himself.”
That’s what a heartbroken Jim and Kristen Kuczo heard from Kevin’s peers at the wake, the vigil and afterward. He could light up a room with his smile and intellect. He didn’t make you feel dumb, but he got his point across.
“He helped me get through some tough times,” they’d say.
“Kevin listened to people,” Kristen said. “One of his friends said they were on the phone for almost two hours not long before his death. His friend was going through some issues, I guess, and was doing most of the talking. People would call him. He’d be like, ‘Mom, I can’t go to bed yet, somebody is upset. They want to talk.’ He wanted to make people feel better.”
As lacrosse coach at Trumbull High, Kammerman has seen the problems COVID presented. As parents, we’ve all seen it. The pandemic has affected our kids in different ways.
“A lot of the things that were precious to us in high school, these kids didn’t have those opportunities over the past year,” Kammerman said.
This was certainly true for Kevin Kuczo. Lacrosse was cancelled last spring. After the highly publicized stops and starts of the football season, the CIAC finally settled on 7-on-7 passing leagues. Fairfield schools went to remote and hybrid learning.
“It was fear at first, but then it’s the isolation,” Jim Kuczo said.
“Especially for Kevin, being part of the team was really important to him,” Kristen said. “I think he missed it a lot.”
Kevin had worked hard for months to prepare for football. With the Legend of Doom workouts, Kevin was in great physical shape.
“Getting jerked around, we’re going to have football, no we’re not, OK maybe in two weeks,” Jim said. “It went on for so long, he just wanted to put on the pads and play.”
When it was ultimately decided to have passing league 7-on-7, Kevin didn’t play. Working his way up as a cornerback and special teams player, he felt it was primarily for the most serious kids looking to get film for college. He wasn’t going to play in college. He wanted to have fun playing in high school.”
Kevin had never struggled in school. It was always A’s and B’s. With COVID, it changed.
“He started doing poorly,” Kristen said. “He said he had trouble focusing on the screen. Like many kids, math was definitely hardest. He had a sense of failure, that he couldn’t do it anymore. That was difficult for him to deal with.”
“He was spending a lot of time in bed,” Jim said. “Not to the point where he wouldn’t get out. To the point where hey, man, why don’t you call somebody up? The real indication to get help was the grades. His grades had almost been like a badge for him before. An F in honors calculus, a D in another class, it indicated there was a problem.”
For Kristen, there was something else, too.
“He didn’t want to try any more socially,” Kristen said. “He said, ‘I’m tired of asking people to do things. They can’t do them. They’re busy.’ It was like he was giving up a little bit.”
Those who have been involved in the mental health world — I have with my wife for 30 years — know it can be difficult to find help. Especially with COVID, many mental health professionals are not taking on new patients. The Kuczo family finally found a licensed clinical social worker and they worked with the guidance office at school.
“We asked them if he was showing suicidal tendencies,” Jim said. “The answer was no. He was making plans. He’s going to his job. He’s going to school. That was in January.”
Kevin was prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant by his pediatrician. Jim and Kristen pushed for more help. Their health insurance provided a list of psychiatrists. One was a podiatrist. One hadn’t practiced for five years. Many weren’t taking patients. They made 20 calls. They finally found one. They also set up a 504 plan where a student receives accommodations that can help ensure academic success. A little more time on tests, etc.
“I don’t know,” Jim said, “maybe he didn’t want to go through with that or didn’t want to stand out.”
What Jim does know is that there was something in his son’s mind — the mind that once brought a smile that lit up a room — telling him something much darker. What Kristen does know is her son felt like he carried the weight of the world.
Jim is known to snore, so he often sleeps downstairs to let the family sleep in peace. On Feb. 4, he woke up to screaming. He thought his son was having a nightmare. He ran up the stairs. Kevin had hung himself.
“I tried to revive him,” Jim said.
There was no reviving him. Kevin Kuczo, a great kid, was dead.
“It was,” his dad said, “The worst day of my life.”
The lacrosse community is an especially tight one. Within a day of Kevin’s death the Fairfield Youth Lacrosse set up a GoFundMe page for the Kuczo family and it raised $120,000. Some of the money has gone for Kevin’s funeral and weekly therapy and counseling for Jim, Kristen and their son, William to help with their grief. Both mom and dad are on antidepressants. A neighbor set up a meal train, where dinners are brought to their house Monday, Wednesday and Friday through June.
“People have been amazing to us,” Jim said. “Without the support of our families and friends, we’d be in a much darker place.”
On Feb. 24, Fairfield schools sent out an email that it had weighed the risk of COVID vs. mental health and decided to allow students back fulltime in early March.
“Kevin’s death was the impetus, 100 percent,” Jim Kuczo said. “They didn’t say my son’s name, but it was implied.”
He paused for a moment to consider his words.
“I think we may have screwed up a generation of kids for something that has a 99.6 percent survival rate.”
Trumbull has worn helmet stickers in Kevin’s honor this season and has read a statement written by Kuczo and Kammerman at the beginning of each game. It focuses on the need to be aware and engaged with those who may be struggling. Kammerman’s hope is to get all FCIAC teams to read the statement prior to each game. Kuzczo said FCIAC commissioner Dave Schulz is also working on a program designed by a non-profit called “Will To Live” for youth teammates that he wants to help implement.
“We’re trying to spread the message that it is OK to have the conversation,” Kammerman said. “People shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it. And be nice like Kevin was. Say hello to people. Say thank you. Hold the door. We gave our kids a list of things they can do. We’re not asking for people to donate money. Just keep it a topic that it’s OK to talk about it.”
The Kuczo name is an integral part of Fairfield County athletics. Jim’s grandfather Paul, who played at Villanova and in pro football, helped start the FCIAC. He was a legendary coach at Stamford High and the gym is named after him. Jim’s dad was a champion track and cross country coach and ran the FCIAC for four decades. Both are in the National Coaches Hall of Fame. Jim helped found Fairfield Youth Lacrosse and was on the board for nine years.
“My last name and what my grandfather and dad accomplished is going to give me a voice to help try to spread the message of breaking the stigma of mental illness,” Jim said. “Right now the deck is stacked against us.”
He recites numbers about the increases in self-harm among teenagers since the pandemic. Shocking numbers. Teen depression is hard enough. With boys, reluctant to discuss their feelings, it can be even harder.
“Get people to talk, raise awareness,” Jim said. “If any good can come out of my son’s death, if we can talk and hopefully save one life — we do that, that is great. We can’t allow it to happen to another kid.”
And with that, Jim Kuzco went out Thursday to his first lacrosse game since Kevin’s death — Kammerman’s Trumbull Eagles and Kevin’s Warde Mustangs — to speak to the teams individually and to address the crowd. He was going to tell them about a great kid he knew and the work that must be done.
If you feel you are in danger of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, anytime, at 800-273-8255 (273-TALK). Help also is available by calling 211 and you can also text CT to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Other resources are available at portal.ct.gov/DMHAS, the website of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. crisistextline.org/