July 29, 2002 -- While Denis Leary's charity work for firefighters has made headlines, what's not well know is that he might easily have been a smoke-eater himself had he not made it in showbiz.
"You had three choices in my family," he told The Post. "You either became a Teamster, which is what my brother did, or a cop, which is what many of my cousins did, or a fireman, which my cousin Jerry [Lucey] did.

"I happened to be the one oddball."

The rest is history. Instead of becoming a firefighter, the 45-year-old comedian, who plays a cop in the ABC show "The Job," went on to become a celebrity - and one who's just been nominated for a New York Post Liberty Medal.

The path to this latest honor began in 1999 when Leary's boyhood buddy Tommy Spencer died along with four other firefighters in his hometown of Worcester, Mass.

Leary realized he had an opportunity to give back.

"My brother said to me 'You've got to start a foundation,' " he said.

The New York-based Leary Firefighters Foundation began by raising money for the victims of the Worcester fire, but after Sept. 11, the star broadened its scope to include the FDNY.

The foundation gave each of the 343 firefighting families who lost a loved one in the Twin Towers attack a check for $3,500.

Leary was nominated for The Post's Liberty Awards Ambassador Medal by Michael Simon, his longtime friend who helps with the charity.

Leary said now is the time to make sure fireman have what they need.

"Now we all know how great fireman are and what they do for a living," he said. "I don't want it to go out of fashion."