Szczur makes tough calls easy at ‘Nova

Matt Szczur never expected to save a life. He was like all the

other Villanova freshman players before him: Get his cheek swabbed

as part of coach Andy Talley’s marrow donor program, move on to the

football field.

He was told there was a 1 in 80,000 chance he’d ever be a match

for a stricken patient.

So Szczur kind of forgot about it.

He worked his way onto the field as a freshman for the only

program that offered him a football scholarship. He was a hit on

the Wildcats’ baseball team, with no regrets for spurning the Los

Angeles Dodgers out of high school.

Then last year, Szczur (See-zer) got the call that changed two

lives:

Would you be willing to donate your bone marrow? You’re a match

for a little girl.

”As soon as I heard that, I was so excited,” Szczur said. ”I

was so pumped. My roommate was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s

like you were drafted or something.”’

It was better.

Szczur already defied the odds by blossoming into a legitimate

two-sport professional prospect. And he did it not at a major

college athletic powerhouse – though the basketball team is one of

the nation’s elite – but at Villanova where the football program is

a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Here he was, asked to deliver in the clutch again. No trophies

involved, just the triumph of the human spirit.

”It’s not something everybody has a chance to do, or, even if

they did have a chance, might not do,” Szczur said.

Szczur was only in this serious spot because of his coach.

Talley was so affected by a radio show nearly 20 years ago that

promoted the dire need for donors of all types of deadly disease,

he brought a bone marrow donor program to campus.

He makes participation as much a routine part of the program as

putting on a helmet and pads.

”I went, jeez, I’ve got 85 healthy players,” Talley said. ”I

have numbers, man. I can do this. That’s how I got started.”

Nearly 20,000 potential donors have been tested and entered into

the national registry because of Talley’s push.

Two previous Villanova players had been a match.

Szczur made three.

Szczur, from Erma, N.J., understood the importance of

participating in the program as much as anyone on the Wildcats. One

of his closest friends from home had battled leukemia and she was

one of the first people he called with the news that he could help

a girl not much older than an infant who suffered from juvenile

leukemia.

His friend about burst into tears. If Szczur needed any last

nudge to convince him he was making the right decision, the

reaction clinched it for him.

For Szczur, the tough call was an easy one.

It came with only minor sacrifices.

Szczur nearly missed out on Villanova’s postseason football run

toward a national championship to donate his stem cells. Because of

scheduling changes with the procedure, he only missed 10 games out

of the Wildcats’ baseball season.

The initial call that let Szczur know he could be a match came

last November. Had he gone through with the procedure then, the

Wildcats might not be the defending Football Championship

Subdivision (Division I’s second tier) champions.

Szczur, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound all-purpose star, was an

Associated Press All-America first-team selection. He had 51

catches, 610 yards and four touchdowns; 813 yards rushing and 10

TDs; 30 kickoff returns for 816 yards and a score; and he was 4 for

4 passing with two TDs.

He was voted Most Outstanding Player in the FCS National

Championship game after he ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns and

had another 68 yards receiving in Villanova’s 23-21 victory over

Montana.

Yet Talley never wavered when Szczur told him he might have to

skip the playoffs.

”Saving someone’s life is a lot more important than a football

game,” Talley said.

When the procedure was rescheduled for May, Szczur had to miss

pivotal games before the Major League Baseball draft.

He needed daily injections of a drug that helped him generate

more white blood cells. When that was over, he went to the hospital

and sat still in a chair for the three-hour procedure. One needle

was inserted into his left arm to withdraw blood and filter out the

blood cells, and another needle was stuck in his right to put the

blood back into his body.

Because of confidentially rules, Szczur only knows he donated to

a girl between 1 and 2 years old. After a year, he is told who she

is and given contact info to get in touch with her if he

chooses.

”Just to experience something like that to help save a life,

I’d do it every day of the week,” he said.

The side effects were minimal. He had an enlarged spleen because

of the drug, and was achy and drowsy once his donation was

over.

He returned to the baseball team, hit .443 as Villanova’s first

.400 hitter since 1997 and was a first-team All-Big East selection.

Sitting out games didn’t impact his draft stock as much as wanting

to play football.

The Chicago Cubs took him in the fifth round (he was selected in

the 38th round by the Dodgers out of high school) and Szczur went

on a 21-game hit streak spread over various stops in the

organization.

”It was awesome just to wake up every morning and just have to

worry about baseball,” he said.

He wore his national championship ring on a visit to Wrigley

Field, where he took batting practice and shook hands with the Cubs

on a clubhouse tour. He met since-retired manager Lou Piniella and

sat in seats three rows off the field.

It was a highlight of his life.

It was as close as he might get again to hitting in a big-league

ballpark.

Szczur has been projected as a mid-round NFL draft pick and he’s

seriously leaning toward quitting baseball. He has to let the Cubs

know his decision by early February if he wants to collect the rest

of a reported $500,000 contract.

Szczur believes he can play faster and make more money in the

NFL. When he singled in his last minor-league at-bat, with his

parents in the stands, Szczur knew that was likely the last time he

would swing a bat in a game that counts.

Talley has limited Szczur’s preseason work after a draining year

and wants him ready to go for the season opener Sept. 3 against

Temple.

”We want him refreshed for the season,” Talley said.

Szczur’s first major purchase with his baseball money was a

necklace for his friend who’s been in remission for five years. He

bought it at Tiffany’s and there was a dove on the chain that

represented faith.

Szczur hopes to deliver a similar, appropriate gift for the girl

and her family should they meet next May.

He already gave her the biggest gift of all.