Szczur may miss some games to help save a life
Matt Szczur does not even know the name of the 19-month-old girl whose life he is trying to save. He's not allowed to know.
The National Marrow Donor Program follows strict confidentiality standards that prohibit donors and patients from learning each other's identities for at least a year after transplant procedures.
But given the chance to save the life of someone he'd never even met, Szczur (pronounced "Caesar") did not hesitate. Even if it meant missing Villanova's Football Championship Subdivision national title game.
Szczur, a standout wide receiver on the gridiron and a star outfielder on the baseball diamond, signed up for the bone marrow donor list as a freshman, just like nearly every other Villanova freshman football player does at the encouragement of coach Andy Talley and teammates. He was told that his chances of being a match for a patient in need of his marrow were about 1-in-50,000.
In late November, right before the FCS playoffs, Szczur found out that he was a match for an infant girl with juvenile leukemia in Massachusetts. For five days, Szczur would be injected with medicine to help him produce more bone marrow, and on the fifth day he would go through a four-to-five-hour-long procedure to take blood out of one of his arms, filter out healthy stem cells to transplant, and put the blood back into his other arm. One side effect of the medication leading up to the operation is an enlarged spleen, which would sideline Szczur from football for at least a few days until his spleen returned to normal size.
Originally, the procedure was scheduled for Dec. 16—two days before the FCS title game. Szczur told Talley he was prepared to miss the game, if the Wildcats got that far.
"I told the coaches, "This is only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save somebody,' and they understood what I was going to do," Szczur said.
"We were thrilled to death that he was a match, and we wouldn't have expected anything less than him missing the game," said Marc Szczur, Matt's father. "That's just the way he is. Especially to save a little girl's life—you kidding me? Like Matt said, it's a no-brainer."
As it happened, the procedure was postponed until the first week of January. On Dec. 11, Szczur ran for a 62-yard touchdown and perfectly executed a fake punt to lead Villanova to a come-from-behind, 14-13 win against William & Mary in the national semifinals. With the transplant delayed, Szczur was able to play in the championship game against Montana a week later.
Receiving direct snaps out of the Wildcat formation, Szczur ran for a career-high 159 yards and racked up 270 all-purpose yards en route to championship game MVP honors. After Villanova wrapped up its first national title with a 23-21 win, Talley called Szczur "the best player in our program since Brian Westbrook."
Shortly after the game, Szczur turned his attention to the upcoming operation. But the girl started showing signs of producing enough healthy stem cells on her own, so the transplant was called off again. But Szczur was told that further tests could reveal the girl still needed his marrow, so he would have to be ready to drop everything at a moment's notice should the need arise at some point in the future.
In March, he got the call that the transplant was back on, scheduled for March 15. But as the date approached, the little girl got sick, and the procedure was delayed again.
Now, it's back on again, barring another setback. Szczur is scheduled to receive his first injection Friday, April 30, and the transplant is slated for Tuesday afternoon.
"I'm excited to get it done and over with," Szczur said.
Szczur said he's uncertain how long the recovery period will take, but the Wildcats will certainly miss him on the baseball field, however long he's sidelined. After going 5-for-5 with five RBIs and hitting for the cycle in yesterday's 17-10 win against Temple, Szczur raised his season line to .439/.489/.624 with two homers, 33 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He ranks second in the Big East in batting, and he's just scratching the surface of his potential.
A Raw Talent
Szczur missed all of the 2008 baseball season with a sports hernia injury, and he made his college baseball debut on Feb. 20, 2009 at Louisiana State—nearly two years after his last appearance in a baseball game.
"His very first game for me was versus LSU when they opened up their new stadium on a Friday night—and Matt struck out three times," Villanova baseball coach Joe Godri said. "Matt didn't strike out his next 18 games after that. So that's just a little snapshot of how this guy makes adjustments. He has a good understanding of how people want to pitch to him, he has a good plan at the plate, he's a patient hitter, he trusts his hands, he's not a guy who's afraid to hit with two strikes, not afraid to hit the other way. He's making mental adjustments well past the experience level that he's at."
Szczur makes adjustments in right field, too. A catcher in high school, Szczur did not get good jumps and reads in the outfield last year, Godri said, and at times he simply overran balls. As a redshirt sophomore this year, he is taking much better angles to the ball, but Godri said Szczur got frustrated after the Connecticut series three weeks ago because opponents were running on him. So he spent eight days working on his throwing mechanics, and since then he has thrown out three runners on the basepaths.
"Being behind the plate, I always kind of short-armed the ball," Szczur said. "So I've made my motion a little longer."
Szczur recognizes that he's far from a finished product in baseball, Godri said, and he works tirelessly to improve his perceived weaknesses. As a two-sport player who does not participate in fall baseball practice and has never concentrated on baseball full-time in his life, it's easy to dream on Szczur's potential.
"That's what one scout said about two weeks ago: He's a very raw talent," Marc Szczur said of his son. "They see a lot of places they could improve him, and he's already doing awesome. But they say he's got a bunch of raw talent. Plus he's fast as hell, and that helps."
Indeed, one National League crosschecker said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Szczur is "a legitimate 80 runner" on the 20-80 scouting scale. The crosschecker also graded out Szczur's bat as a solid 50 and projected him as a fifth- or sixth-round pick.
Godri compares Szczur to big league outfielders Brett Gardner and Scott Podsednik, but he said he could also see Szczur playing second base in pro ball, which would increase his value. Of course, Talley compares Szczur to New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, and there is some sentiment Szczur has a chance to be selected in the third or fourth round of next year's NFL draft if he returns for his senior year in football.
"Two questions that I get wherever I go now are, No. 1: What is it like to win a national championship?" Talley said in March at the Maxwell Football Club awards dinner, where he and Szczur were honored. "And No. 2 is what is Matt Szczur going to do?"
"To be honest," Szczur told BA, "I don't really have an idea."
Even Marc Szczur said he does not know which sport his son prefers.
"During baseball season, it's baseball, and in football season he loves to play football," the elder Szczur said. "There's no in-between. When he's in football season, he's working 100 percent in football, and baseball season it's 100 percent baseball. We haven't sat down and seriously talked about which do you want to do? It's not that time yet. Getting close, but it's not that time yet. I don't want to put any more pressure on him than he already has."
As challenging as Szczur's decision will be, he's not sweating it. Not when he'll be donating his bone marrow to save a young girl in less than a week.
"He's going to save somebody's life—he's going to give somebody the opportunity of life," Godri said. "We're just playing baseball games. He's doing a great thing."
To join the National Marrow Donor Program, go to www.marrow.org.