Villanova baseball standout, NFL draft prospect Szczur loving life after helping to save one

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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.