TAMPA — For a while, Jeffrey Kocab made his living shy of danger.
He waited tables at a Ponderosa Steakhouse and a Beef 'O' Brady's, taught kids math and science with a traveling troupe and coached young actors with the Children's Theater of Florida.
He bounced from Virginia to Michigan to Florida and wrote a play called Kites, Planes, Rockets and Boomerangs.
But none of these things fulfilled him.
"I love helping people," Kocab wrote in his application to the Plant City Police Department in 2005. "I know police work is not just about showing up when someone has broken a law. I look forward to just helping the motorist whose car has broken down on a busy road."
"If he saw something he thought was a wrong," said his friend Don Hanson, an officer in Michigan, "he wanted to fix it."
That decision came with risks.
There he was one night in 2006, when he and his zone partner spotted four guys in a car acting strangely. They parked blocks away and walked up and the driver slammed the car into gear and Kocab, barely more than a year on the job, lunged into the car.
They put up a fight, but not like the scrappy 150-pound purple belt who studied Brazilian jujitsu at Russ Cross' World Fighting Arts Center in Haines City, who could choke out guys 50 pounds heavier.
Michael Bard and Kocab arrested four men — three of them wanted for the beating death of a migrant worker.
"That's when I knew that this job was for real, and that my partner was for real," said Bard, 30. "Jeff was a go-get-'em cop."
And there Kocab was, off duty in Plant City one night in February 2007, and he spotted a man acting weirdly. He walked up, the chief recalled, and the weird guy ran, and the rookie cop gave chase and caught the man and found in his pocket 46 grams of crack cocaine and, in his waist belt, a Ruger pistol.
Good officer, his supervisor wrote.
And there he was 16 days later, when he spotted a wanted felon named Johnnie L. James on Maryland Avenue. James jumped in a car and crashed and took off on foot. He ran, but not faster than Kocab, who often logged 15 miles before his martial arts workouts.
Sixteen charges for Johnnie James, most violent felonies involving a handgun.
"Every shift he worked he gave 100 percent," said Plant City police Chief Bill McDaniel. "He was always in turbo mode. He was fearless."
He made strong friends with the 70 officers in the department. They picked him as employee of the month four times in three years. In 2007, the rookie cop earned the department's highest honor: Officer of the Year.
"I love law enforcement," he told the Tampa Tribune in 2007. "But I really love being able to bring my energy to the street. I love to get the bad guys."
He drummed his fingers on the armrest in his squad car and sucked down Cokes and zipped around on a Suzuki motorcycle. He couldn't quit talking about the intense action flick, Transformers, which he watched at a drive-in with his squad.
Fourteen months ago, he got on with Tampa police. In his first year he logged 596 traffic stops and issued 374 tickets. He made 108 arrests and did 231 quality field interrogation reports. All of that between 2,097 calls for service.
His supervisor rode along and watched Kocab deal with the victim of a robbery.
"Officer Kocab maintained a stellar image and the victim was extremely pleased with his demeanor and the investigation," the supervisor wrote.
"I am very happy to be here and look forward to continuing my career here with TPD," wrote Kocab, 31.
Even the boss noticed. Chief Jane Castor wrote a special recognition after Kocab assisted another cop on a traffic stop, where they caught a suspect wanted for battery on a law enforcement officer.
"Jeff was a phenomenal officer, a real fire-breather," said Tampa police officer Jason Ward. "He was the true ideal of a sheep dog protector."
He applied that same passion to his 10-year marriage, his friends said. The couple sat flush left at Church on the Rock in Plant City.
Sara, a middle school dean, loved Shaq. Kocab loved the Red Wings and complained to friends up north that hockey here was weak. He worked the night shift, commuting from Kissimmee.
Friend Russ Cross said Kocab and his wife had been trying for a long time to have a baby.
Ward said, "He would have been a tremendous father."
Bard was at Tampa General Hospital Tuesday afternoon. He said Kocab's wife, nine months pregnant, was being tended by her pastor, and by Kocab's mother and sister.
"She's surrounded by people who love her," he said.
Times staff writers Justin George, Lane DeGregory and Marlene Sokol and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.