It all started in 1971 when Jimmy Cvetic grabbed a 13-year-old boy for stealing tape decks out of cars. He didn’t arrest him and less than two years later the boy was dead from a drug overdose.
“That bothered me,” said Cvetic, who is now retired from a 35-year career with the Allegheny County Police. “If I would have said something or did something.”
Cvetic said the boy has always represented innocence to him. His response was to open a free boxing gym in downtown Pittsburgh.
“I’ve never charged a kid anything,” Cvetic said. “If kids can’t afford shoes, I make sure we find the money for them.”
In the last 44 years, Cvetic has opened seven more gyms as far away as DuBois, Penn. All of the gyms are free for any youth with the dedication to learn how to box.
“Boxing is a way of life,” said Cvetic. “It’s a metaphor for everything else … it teaches you the way.”
Many of the youths who have come through Cvetic’s gyms have gone on to fight in the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League, some have competed in Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournaments and some have even participated in professional fights. But what seems to make Cvetic happiest is when the those children grow up and get jobs.
“Jimmy is a Godsend person, he does this for the kids,” said Rick Manning, who helps train at Cveitc’s gym on Third Avenue Downtown. “We see a lot of low-income kids come through here just to get off the streets and stay out of trouble.”
Manning said many of the youths tell him that if it weren’t for the gym they would be out drinking, selling drugs, in jail, or worse.
Cvetic has been doing this long enough that he is now working with the grandkids of some of the first children that came under his tutelage.
Getting youths off the streets and into boxing gyms is only a sliver of what Cvetic does. Along with founding the Police Athletic League, Cvetic is also the fonder of the Three Rivers Peace Project, he writes poetry and has just ventured into song writing.
Cvetic keeps the gyms open through donations and grants. He has also set up a small college scholarship fund to help with books and other costs associated with higher education. He is hoping to be able to fund a foundation through proceeds from his music to keep the gyms open even after he is gone.
“I’m not a millionaire but I’m a millionaire in spirit," Cvetic said. "That’s what I always teach the kids."