A tale of, and about, long shots 

May, 11, 2010

The odds were microscopic. Eighty thousand-to-1. Matt Szczur was the one.

Szczur, though, knows all too well about being a long shot. Szczur (pronounced Caesar) didn't have any college football offers from FBS programs despite a decorated prep career as a standout football player, baseball player and sprinter on the track team in South Jersey. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 38th round, but he opted for a chance to play both football and baseball at Villanova. Good thing for the Wildcats. All Szczur did was lead them to their first FCS national title last winter. In Nova's 23-21 over Montana, the 5-11, 190-pound receiver rolled up 270 rushing, receiving and return yards to earn MVP honors. The performance certainly has boosted his stock in NFL scouts' eyes, but Szczur may be even more coveted for his baseball talents.

He is batting .435, which is tops on the team and second-best in the Big East. However, Szczur is in the midst of a two-week layoff from competition. He has a pretty good reason. Last week, he underwent a three-hour procedure to donate bone marrow to help save the life of a 19-month-old baby girl who is a leukemia patient.

"I feel 100 percent right now," he said Tuesday morning. "The only problem is the medicine, Neupogen, enlarges my spleen and because of that I can't play [yet]. I went for an ultrasound last Friday and it was still enlarged, so I'm going to get one on Thursday to see if I can play in the Notre Dame series this weekend."

According to Villanova, thousands of patients with leukemia and other life-threatening diseases need bone marrow transplants and depend on the Be The Match Registry to find a donor. For a successful transplant, a patient needs a matching donor. Although there are more than 20 million registered donors, there are still only a few hundred matches found each year. Szczur got involved with the program when he arrived at Villanova. Football coach Andy Talley champions the cause. "Once you're a freshman, you register with the Bone Marrow Foundation," Szczur said. "We don't have to do it, but everybody does it just because of the benefits of it."

To undergo the procedure, the donor (Szczur) must take medicine in the days before the procedure. One of the side effects is the enlarged spleen, which means no sports for a few weeks. Initially, Szczur was scheduled to do the procedure last winter in the middle of the FCS playoffs before it got postponed because the girl was getting better and able to produce stem cells on her own, he says. For the Wildcats junior, it was an easy decision what he would do. "No question about it," he said. "The opportunity to save someone's life or win a national championship? I'd take the first one any day of the week."

The procedure was actually postponed two times before Szczur got the call that said this last time things were definitely on.

Szczur actually had a final in Theology the day after the procedure. "It took a toll on my body. I was stressing over this and trying to juggle everything," he said, adding that the procedure itself wasn't bad at all. "There's two types of procedures. One is through the hip. I did the other way. They put the needle in one arm and take your blood out. Then they put a needle in your other arm and filter out the stem cells from the Neupogen, the medicine. The medicine was the worst part because it creates aches and pains and your bones are sore."

Szczur's MVP performance in the FCS national title game might prove to be the last football game he plays in. Because he's such a promising baseball talent, he may get drafted again in next month's MLB draft. He admitted he's intrigued by a pro baseball career. "It doesn't really matter what the round is, it is about the opportunity I'm going to have," he said. "If everything is right, I'm going to go. I love playing baseball."

He said he loves both sports equally, depending on which season it is, but concedes he thinks he has more potential in baseball. "I only play four months out of the year and I'm doing pretty well," he said. "If I were to dedicate myself 12 months out of the year to baseball then I think the sky is the limit."

I know some football coaches who would've loved to have the chance to recruit Szczur all over again. He says he ran 4.4s at the junior day camps he attended at Duke, Vanderbilt and Rutgers -- although he also mentioned that he had a bad day at another combine. Still, he's not sure why he didn't have any offers aside from Villanova. Maybe, he reasons, the FBS schools were discouraged because they knew he also wanted to play baseball. Regardless, it's led to quite a glorious path since Szczur ended up at Nova. He won a national title. Better yet, he saved a little girl's life.