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Eric Kuchii: The 'Unsung Hero' at Walter Payton College Prep

By Justin Breen | March 20, 2013 6:11am

NEAR NORTH SIDE — In the early-to-mid 1990s, Eric Kuchii was a North Shore soccer legend at Evanston Township High School for his summersault-style throw-ins.

While holding the ball, Kuchii could spin and, as momentum carried him over, release ridiculously long throws — much farther than the average Joe.

But when Kuchii went to DePaul University to play soccer in 1995, he started throwing in the ball overhand style, like everyone else.

"I didn't want to be known for a gimmick," Kuchii said. "I just wanted to be known as a soccer player."

Kuchii's modesty has carried over to his teaching role at Walter Payton College Prep, where the 35-year-old is considered a hero for his dedication to the school's nine autistic special education students.

The Jefferson Park resident is a full-time physical education teacher and coaches the boys soccer team, but he also spends as many as 10 hours a week — unpaid — to coach the autistic children in several Special Olympics sports for the last eight years.

Kuchii became "hooked" on the special education students while teaching them in Adaptive Physical Education, which pairs special and general ed kids. As time went on, Kuchii wanted to do "more and more" to help them.

Kuchii's mother, Jan, said her son has gone as far as to choose coaching Special Olympians instead of attending family trips or parties.

Special education teacher Sarah Spencer, of Old Town, said Kuchii has made the athletes his priority.

"I feel there's nothing he wouldn't do for those guys," she said.

"Sweetness" himself was a special education major when he graduated from Jackson State in 1975. It's likely he would have been extremely proud of Kuchii's efforts at the high school named after him.

Kuchii eats most of his lunches with the autistic students, who are all boys. After his regular class day ends, he usually heads to the school's self-contained autistic classroom, where he'll help the athletes learn skills for basketball, track and field, T-ball, bowling and, of course, soccer.

"Saturday mornings when most people aren't doing anything, Eric's out with those kids weightlifting or playing basketball," said Paul Escobar, a Walter Payton physical education teacher and Wicker Park resident. "He loves the kids, and it's completely genuine."

Kuchii, who has taught at Payton for 11 years, also takes the special ed students next door to the pool at Moody Bible Institute for swimming lessons.

"You can see the results," said Payton athletic director Arlene Bertoni-Mancine, of Armour Square. "He had kids that never knew how to swim, and now they can swim multiple laps in a pool. He wants them to be just like everybody else."

Bertoni-Mancine has nominated Kuchii for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education's "Unsung Hero Award." Spencer has put up Kuchii for the Golden Apple Award.

Kuchii has yet to claim either honor, but he doesn't care about the accolades.

"Unless I really ask a lot, he definitely wouldn't come home and brag about the great things he does," said Kuchii's wife, Lisa, a Chicago Police Officer who graduated from Resurrection High School and Columbia College.

Kuchii said he has the same passion coaching the autistic athletes as he does the ones on the boys soccer squad, which he's led to several regional titles. He previously coached girls soccer, which also won regional championships.

"But with soccer, that can get frustrating so easily," Kuchii said. "The [special education] guys rarely get frustrated. There's no disappointment, and maybe I relate better to them."

That was evident watching Kuchii with the special ed students during a recent visit to the school.

He posed for photos with them, showing off various silly yoga poses and even jokingly holding up sophomore Donald Campbell in a wheelbarrow position.

"Every time I'm with these guys, it's a new story," Kuchii said. "I just love doing it, and being a part of it is just fun."