Matt Szczur’s transformation from unwanted recruit to hero is as improbable as it is amazing.
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He came out of an unheralded high school in New Jersey as a 5-foot-11, 200-pounder without a true position. Even the coach who offered him a scholarship — his only offer — was skeptical. His desire to play baseball as well as football didn’t help, either.
Yet everything worked out like a fairy tale.
Last season, Szczur (pronounced SEE-zer) led Villanova to its first national football championship. In the Football Championship Series title game against Montana, he had 270 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns and was named Most Outstanding Player.
As he enters his senior season, some NFL scouts project him as high as a third-round draft choice. His baseball future also appears bright — in June he was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Cubs and excelled in the minor leagues.
Yet none of that has anything to do with him becoming a hero. He doesn’t consider himself such, but he became one last spring when he donated his stem cells to a little girl stricken with leukemia.
Although he knew there was a chance it might cause him to miss the national championship game if Villanova got that far, Szczur didn’t hesitate. He says he was grateful for the opportunity to help.
"Anybody can catch a winning touchdown pass or hit a home run,” Szczur says. “But there’s not too many people who can save a life.”
“He’s a kid who’s just a dream,” says Villanova coach Andy Talley. “When you get done talking with him you’re like, ‘Wow, is this kid for real?’”
As Talley watches Szczur scamper about in a practice during preseason camp, he affectionately describes him as a “sweetheart,” but even he wasn’t sure about him at first. In high school, Szczur attended Villanova’s summer football camps as well as those at Maryland, Rutgers and Vanderbilt and other FCS schools like New Hampshire.
Yet despite his 4.4 speed in the 40, questions remained about him and the level of competition he faced at Lower Cape May Regional High School in Lower Township, N.J., an area in the southernmost part of the state that’s best known for its beaches, not its athletics.
"I guess they saw a white receiver and they didn’t want to take a chance on him," Szczur says.
Talley recalls watching video of Szczur playing quarterback, running back and safety and repeatedly asking his coaching staff, “Where do we project him to play?” He finally offered a scholarship only after being convinced by wide receivers coach Brian Flinn that Szczur could play wide receiver.
“We hoped that he could,” Talley said.
And he’s done more than that. Last season, he had 51 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 813 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing while moonlighting as quarterback in his team’s wildcat package as well as 816 kickoff return yards with a TD. He also completed all four of his passes last season, two of which were for touchdowns.
Szczur had a touchdown reception and completed two passes for 31 yards as the Wildcats suffered a last-minute, 31-24 loss to cross-town rival Temple in Friday night’s season opener.
Talley, who coached San Francisco 49ers running back Bryant Westbrook at Villanova, says NFL scouts have told him that Szczur is likely to be a third- to fourth-round pick in April’s NFL draft. He compares him to a bigger version of New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker.
Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and a longtime executive with the Dallas Cowboys, likens Szczur to Cincinnati Bengals rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley, a third-round pick in April’s NFL draft.
“He may be the most interesting player in college football,” Brandt says.
A major-league prospect
Baseball people are impressed, too. Tim Wilken, the Cubs’ director of amateur and professional scouting, describes Szczur’s play in the minors this past summer as “borderline incredible.”
After signing with the Cubs, Szczur dazzled as a center fielder during a 25-game stint in three different lower levels of the minor leagues this past summer. Using a wooden bat for the first time, he hit .347 and scored 24 runs.
Wilken marvels at Szczur’s hand-eye coordination and hitting ability for someone with limited at-bats because of football.
“Supposedly he’s going to be in good in football, but he’s going to be real good in baseball if he chooses that,” Wilken says.
Szczur’s Cubs contract has already paid him $100,000. It allows him to play football for Villanova this season, but requires him to choose between baseball and football by Feb. 10.
If he sticks with baseball, he will receive another $500,000.
“Now I’m kind of in a tough spot,” says Szczur, who was also drafted in the 38th round out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I absolutely love the minor leagues, but if I have a good football season I’ll probably go the football route if I have a chance to get drafted, because you make it faster. I love football too. It’s not like I like one better than the other.”
Wilken believes Szczur could be a starting center fielder and an above-average hitter in the majors. He says he has emphasized to Szczur the NFL’s high risk of injury and lack of longevity.
“The one thing I don’t think he knows at this point is how good he could really be at baseball,” Wilken says.
Talley says he’s not sure which sport Szczur will choose, but believes money will be the deciding factor. He also leaves little doubt about which sport he thinks suits Szczur better.
“He’s a football player playing baseball.”
A real lifesaver
As tough as the choice between baseball and football will be, Szczur’s decision to donate his stem cells was easy.
For 18 years, Talley has had his players sign up for a national bone marrow registry. It’s part of a national campaign he started called “Get In The Game and Save a Life.” This year, 30 college football teams participated.
Szczur registered as a freshman, then quickly forgot about it. After all, the he says the chances of being selected to donate are 1 in 80,000 and just two former Villanova players had ever been selected.
“I had no thoughts of ever being a match,” Szczur says.
But in November during the FCS playoffs, Szczur received a call about donating for a girl who was between 1 and 2 years old. To do so, he would need to take daily doses of a drug to help generate more white blood cells.
As a side effect, Szczur’s spleen would become enlarged, meaning he would not be able to play in the national title game if Villanova made it. Yet as sweat pours down his green “Donate Life” bracelet after a practice last month, he says never considered not donating.
“I have no choice,” Talley recalls Szczur telling him. “I’m going to save her and that’s that.”
Szczur also saw donating as a chance to honor a close friend from high school. Lauren Mulholland has been in remission from kidney cancer since 2001, but had to undergo a double lung transplant four years later because scar tissue from her radiation and chemotherapy had caused her breathing problems.
When Szczur excitedly called to tell her that he was going to donate bone marrow, she burst into tears.
“It was something really special that we shared,” says Mulholland, 20. “We both understood something that a lot of other people don’t.”
When the original time came for Szczur to donate, the little girl was not ready for the transplant. So he continued to play for the Wildcats, rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns and catching four passes for 68 yards in a 23-21 comeback victory against Montana in the championship game.
“We might not have won without him,” Talley says. “But if we had to do it again, him donating would be the choice we would make. We’re talking about saving a life here, not just a football game.”
Szczur ended up donating his cells to the little girl in May, which caused him to miss 10 Big East baseball games. In his last at-bat before the procedure, he hit a home run.
Then when he returned to the lineup, Szczur hit an inside-the-park home run in his first swing after not being able to do anything physically during his time away.
“It was awesome,” Szczur says. “People couldn’t believe it.”
Because of confidentiality rules, Szczur does not know the name of the girl who received his bone marrow, but knows that she was discharged from the hospital. In a year, he could find out who she is and meet her then.
“I can’t wait,” Szczur says.
In June, on the five-year anniversary of Mulholland’s double lung transplant, her family and friends threw her a surprise party. Szczur gave her a Tiffany necklace with a dove representing faith. He had bought it with his signing bonus.
“It’s so hard to put a word to what he is,” Mulholland says. “He’s just a hero.”
And the type who deserves cheers from more than just college football fans.