College : : Story
Monday, January 11, 2010

Villanova’s Matt Szczur: An MVP for life

Jim Ecker        

Matt Szczur hit .346 for the Villanova University baseball team last season, which was very good. Then he helped the Wildcats win a national title in football last month and was named a Walter Camp All-American, which was excellent. Now he’s eager to serve as a stem-cell donor for an ailing little girl, which would be his greatest accomplishment yet.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Szczur told Perfect Game USA on Sunday. “A great season in football and also a national championship. And now I’ll get a chance to save this little girl’s life.”

The procedure for the young girl, who is only 15 or 16 months old, had been scheduled for Jan. 4, but she is doing better and the procedure has been delayed. “For now it’s postponed,” he said, “but I’ll have an opportunity to do it later on. She’s able to produce the stem cells I was going to give her – the stem cells from the bone marrow I was going to give her.”

Szczur doesn’t know the girl. He hasn’t met her, doesn’t know her name and doesn’t know where she lives. “No, I don’t know anything about her,” he said.

But Szczur (pronounced Caesar) is a member of the National Marrow Donor Program, and when he’s called, he’ll gladly answer. He’s a perfect match for the young girl and could be the key for helping her enjoy a happy, healthy life.

Szczur was willing to skip the NCAA FCS national championship game against Montana on Dec. 18 if he had been needed for the procedure, but that wasn’t necessary. Instead, he joined his Villanova teammates in Chattanooga, Tenn., for the finals and played an extraordinary game as the Wildcats won the title, 23-21.

Szczur, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior, carried the ball 14 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the finals, caught four passes for 68 yards, returned two kickoffs for 43 yards and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the game. “I just had a good game,” he said modestly. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. We were talking about that last night, actually. That championship game felt good.”

Szczur, 20, became interested in the National Marrow Donor Program because of a high school friend’s battle with juvenile leukemia. “That’s what got me interested in it,” he said. In addition, Villanova football coach Andy Talley has been a member of the Donor Program for 20 years. That cemented the idea.

“Coach Talley is the reason I wanted to do it so bad,” Szczur said. “I was going to do it 100 percent regardless of what procedure I had to go through.”

Szczur said his teammates know how committed he is to helping the young girl and supported his decision to skip the championship game, if necessary. “They had my back,” he said, “because they know how much it means to me.”

When the time comes, Szczur will have numerous medications to take before and after the procedure. One of the side effects could be an enlarged spleen, which would require him to interrupt his busy sports career for about 10 days. As far as the procedure itself, Szczur said it’s fairly simple on his part. He’ll lie on a gurney while blood is removed from one arm, filtered through a machine to harvest the stem cells, then returned into his other arm.

“That’s what it is,” he said.

The procedure would take 4 to 6 hours. All concerned hope it saves the girl’s life. “So do I,” he said.

Szczur, from Erma, N.J., attended several Perfect Game USA events in high school. He was selected in the 38th round of the 2007 major league draft by the Dodgers following his senior year at Lower Cape May Regional High School, but decided to attend college. He wanted to play baseball and football in college and was offered the chance at Villanova, where he’s made the most of his opportunity.

“There were more major league scouts at my high school games than college scouts,” he said. “Then after I got drafted I started getting offers (for football). But a lot of schools didn’t take me because I wanted to play baseball. They just wanted me to play football.”

Szczur was originally a catcher, but moved to the outfield at Villanova last season when he batted .346. And he did just about everything for the football team as a running back, receiver, quarterback in the wildcat formation, and member of special teams. He rushed 108 times for 813 yards and 10 touchdowns this past season, caught 51 passes for 610 yards and four TDs, returned 30 kickofs for 816 yards and a touchdown, and completed all four of his passes for 22 yards and two touchdowns. All told, he accounted for 2,261 yards and 17 touchdowns as Villanova finished 14-1.

Szczur will be eligible for the major league draft again this June but has no idea what the future will bring. He’d like to become a professional athlete, but doesn’t know which sport might offer the best opportunity. “I wish I could fast-forward two years from now and see where I was at. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “If I have a good baseball season (this year), I might concentrate on baseball, but I’ll always have football to come back to.”

He enjoys both sports. “I like baseball during the baseball season and football during the football season,” he said.

Szczur missed the 2008 college baseball serious with a groin injury, and played part of the 2009 college football season with an injured shoulder. His shoulder was not 100 percent for the national championship game, but you wouldn’t know it from his performance. “I’m fine now,” he said. “My body is feeling good.”

The next step will be making sure that little girl is fine, too.

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