Small Town, Big League

Text by Bob Dreyfuss / Spring 2017

The first sign that something unusual was happening on a freezing day in late January, deep into Cape May’s off season, was that there was nowhere to park within blocks of Convention Hall. Outside, latecomers were streaming in twos and threes up the steps, and unlike many events in town that lean toward beach casual, folks were dressed to the nines. Inside, the place was packed: hundreds of men and women, sipping wine or cocktails, perusing an expansive array of silent auction items.

Another thing was unusual, too. Unlike many events in Cape May, where—let’s face it—the attendees often skew toward older and grayer, the crowd was chock full of people in their 20s and 30s. And at the center of the action, smiling and greeting his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder scene, was Lower Township’s Matt Szczur. Nattily outfitted in a sharp blue suit and a radiant orange shirt open at the collar, Szczur presented a silhouette that was tall, trim, fit and athletic-looking. Which wasn’t surprising, given that Szczur is a three-sport athlete who just happens to play for the Chicago Cubs, the World Champion baseball club that ended a century-long drought by winning last fall’s World Series.

Szczur (pronounced: Caesar, like the emperor or the salad) is, of course, a local boy made really, really good. Born and raised in Cape May County and a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School, he just might be Cape May’s most famous resident—and not only for his skills on the field. For Szczur is also—and humbly—a hero of another kind, as bone marrow donor and a spark plug for a nationwide charity drive to raise funds and donors for Be the Match. It is an organization operated by the National Bone Marrow Donor program aimed at fostering transplants to help cure people with life-threatening blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

That evening, Convention Hall was hosting a “Szcz the Day” benefit for the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. And the reason why so many millennials and Generation Xers were in attendance is that Szczur, who organized and promoted the event, attracted sports fans, fellow LCMR grads, and alumni from Villanova University, where Szczur was a standout star. Talley, also there for the festivities, was Szczur’s Villanova coach, and the person who initially inspired Szczur to get involved with Be the Match.

It was, as we shall see, a decision that could have drastically affected Szczur’s sports career. But, he told Cape May Magazine, it wasn’t something he thought twice about, and he’s never looked back. As he told ESPN, which produced a stirring video account of Szczur’s journey from star athlete to bone marrow donor, it was just something he had to do. “To be able to make a difference, I honestly think that anyone in my place would have done the same thing,” he said.

Szczur, who’ll be 28 in July, was born and raised in Cape May Court House and grew up in Erma. From a very early age, both Matt and his older brother, Marc, were naturals at sports and, according to their father, Marc Szczur, they excelled in virtually every one they explored. Beginning at three years old, they participated in karate, pee-wee wrestling, soccer, tee-ball, Little League baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. “When Matt was three, four, five years old he hung around with his older brother, and he was as good or better than he was in just about everything,” said Marc. “He was always working out, and he was always trying to get bigger, better, faster, stronger.”

Both boys, said Marc, were good kids. “Sure, they got into their share of trouble, but they were so involved with sports that they couldn’t get into too much trouble,” he said, laughing.

Matt Szczur is a legend at LCMR, where he earned varsity letters in baseball, football, and track and field. On the baseball field, both brothers excelled, and for a time they formed a fraternal battery, with Matt catching and Marc pitching. “That,” says Marc Sr., “was really fun to watch.” In 2007, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers noticed Matt’s prowess at bat and in the field, and he was drafted by the Dodgers in the 38th round to enter pro ball. Instead, Matt opted to head for Villanova upon graduating.

Szczur with (from left): Kevin and Erica O’Neil, Lisa Wiedmeyer

Coach Talley, who recruited Szczur to Nova’s football program, says that the school had their eye on him since ninth grade. “Matty was someone we had out to our summer camps when he was in high school, and we were able to evaluate him as an athlete,” he told Cape May Magazine. “He was someone who could play several positions. And he was a two-sport guy, who could play baseball, too.”

At Villanova, Szczur played football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Truth be told, he might have been able to turn professional in either sport. “To be honest, I probably always preferred baseball to football,” he told Cape May Magazine. Some of his reasoning was practical, since the professional life of a football player averages just a few years, while baseball pros tend to stay in the game far longer. “When I thought about it, it just seemed like baseball players had a lot more longevity in their careers.” Not many people, of course, ever get to make that choice.

It would be Talley who opened the door for Szczur’s life-changing decision to get involved with the bone marrow donation program.

In 1992—when Szczur was just three years old—Talley began working to find people willing to be bone marrow donors. He started by asking Villanova football players to lead the way. This is how it works: a person can offer to become a bone marrow donor, but only if the specifics of their genetic makeup are compatible with the bone marrow needs of a specific cancer sufferer. In the vast majority of cases, it’s a long shot, and many people whose blood is tested never find a match. (According to the Chicago Tribune, which profiled Szczur’s involvement with Be the Match, it’s a 1-in-80,000 chance that a donor and a recipient will match.) If, in fact, a match does turn up, and if the would-be recipient qualifies for a transplant, then the volunteer still has the option, naturally, of deciding whether or not to follow through.

Talley was excited about the idea of involving student athletes on campus at Villanova. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got 90 healthy football players,” he told Cape May Magazine. Many of them signed up, and Talley began to expand the effort, drawing in other area colleges, including Temple University. “I was trying at the beginning to get local schools and colleges to have bone marrow drives,” he said. The program grew from a dozen schools to more than 40 by the mid-2000s, and today it encompasses more than 70 colleges and universities nationwide. In 2010, he founded the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, with thousands of potential donors. “Recently, we hit the 5,000 mark in terms of student athletes,” he said. The National Bone Marrow Donor Program/Be the Match has completed more than 70,000 transplants since the late 1970s, and it currently does 6,400 a year.

In 2006, as a Villanova freshman, Szczur—who had a friend in high school who had battled leukemia—signed up. And three years later, in 2009, right in the middle of the football season, Szczur learned that a young girl in Ukraine, Anastasia Olkhovsky, was a match. Without blinking, knowing that if anything were to go wrong with the procedure, it could end his chance of becoming a professional athlete, Szczur agreed to go ahead.

Though often considered a routine procedure, having bone marrow extracted for a donation is not exactly a walk in the park. It is, according to the ESPN report on Szczur, “E:60 Risking It All,” an “exhausting, three-hour” event which, in some cases, can lead to severe damage to the donor’s spleen and other side effects. Despite all that, Szczur wasn’t deterred. In introducing Szczur at Convention Hall in Cape May in January, Kevin Reilly, a former special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles who’s now a broadcaster—and a cancer survivor himself—described it this way: “It’s 2009. You’ve got a chance for a national championship. Your best player is Matt Szczur,” said Reilly. “Matt didn’t even hesitate.”

As it turned out, Olkhovsky wasn’t quite ready—yet—to be a recipient. Szczur went on that year to lead the Villanova Wildcats to a national championship in an upset, 23–21 win over the University of Montana. In the championship game, Szczur racked up 159 yards with two touchdowns, and he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

That spring, however, while Szczur was on the field for Villanova’s baseball team—and while expecting possible offers from both the NFL and Major League Baseball—he was informed that his bone marrow was needed, and right away. It was the climax of the baseball season, but once again he didn’t hesitate. “When he was told that he would miss some games in the greatest season of his life, he just said, ‘So be it,’” said Talley. Not only—Szczur would learn later—would the transplant be successful, but the whole story took a magical turn. In his last at-bat before missing 10 days for the bone marrow transfer, Szczur hit a home run. Then, in his first at-bat back on the field, he homered again.

None of this surprises Talley. “Matt is a small-town guy, with small-town values,” he said. “He’s really a dream come true. He’s got a heart as big as a football field.”

“I never really thought of it as a really big deal,” said Szczur. “It was all worth it, and when I saw the effect that it had on Anastasia’s family, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

A few weeks after his bone marrow helped save Olkhovsky’s life, Szczur was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB draft, earning a $100,000 signing bonus and an additional $500,000 if he agreed to pass up a football career. Later, he signed a $1.5 million deal with the Cubs, moving from the minors to the major league team in 2014. He had stints with the Cubs in both 2015 and 2016. In limited action last year, playing in 107 games, Szczur hit a respectable .259, with five home runs, nine doubles, a triple, and 24 RBIs. And last April 29, Szczur hit his first grand slam home run in the eighth inning of a 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, is effusive about Szczur. “He’s kind of like a manager’s dream player. He knows his role. He stays ready. He’s very versatile.” Last October, Maddon took the Cubs into the post-season and eventually the World Series, which the Cubbies won in seven games over the Cleveland Indians—the Cubs’ first World Series victory since 1908.

For Szczur, the post-season was bittersweet, however. Despite his credible season stats, Szczur was left off the Cubs post-season roster, and didn’t see any action. He spent the Series on the bench, in uniform, rooting for his buddies but unable to contribute. “It was hard,” he told Cape May Magazine. Nevertheless, Szczur was part of the Cubs history-making season, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he’ll cherish forever.

For Marc Szczur, Matt’s father, it’s all like a dream come true. “I’m a baseball fanatic,” he said. “The way I feel is, it’s more than just being proud. It’s fun.” A mechanic who works at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, Marc gets a couple of months off in the summer after the boardwalk is up and running, and he often travels to Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York to see his son play ball. “When they’re playing the Phillies, sometimes we’ll have 50 or 75 friends, and the whole family, at a tailgate party.”

At Convention Hall, looking out at the hundreds of people gathered to raise money for Talley’s foundation and for Szczur’s “Szcz the Day” program, Lower Township Mayor Eric Simonsen summed up Szczur’s journey so far. “You can set records in your local high school. You can go off to college and be the MVP,” he said. “But not too many people can say, ‘I saved someone’s life.’”