LOWER TOWNSHIP — Matt Szczur may someday patrol center field at Wrigley Field and thrill Chicago Cubs fans with his baseball skills. On Wednesday, he did something more important. Something likely to help save lives.
The Lower Cape May Regional graduate came back to his old high school and helped sign up 191 people to be bone marrow donors.
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Szczur, 21, of Erma, is finishing his studies at Villanova University, where he starred in football and baseball before recently signing a $1.5 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. On Wednesday morning he left Villanova at 7 a.m. and battled a snowstorm to come home and use his star power to sign up bone marrow donors.
Szczur has already helped save the life of a young girl. He made a donation last May under the National Marrow Donor Program.
Szczur, who hit several shots over the famous ivy-covered walls when he took batting practice at Wrigley Field last year, said helping the 19-month-old girl with leukemia was a thrill beyond compare.
“I couldn’t put it into words how it felt. Through the whole process, I felt anything I could do for this little girl would be awesome,” Szczur said.
The baseball star heading to spring training in Arizona in a few weeks gave credit to his high school football coach Lance Bailey and his mother, Kathy Szczur, for setting up the event. Szczur only had to show up.
“I’m busy now trying to get through school,” Szczur said.
Kathy Szczur was busy on Wednesday teaching donors how to scrape DNA from their mouths using cotton swabs. About 70 percent of patients with leukemia and other life-threatening illnesses do not have a donor match in their own family and must rely on strangers.
“Take this and place it between cheek and gum. Swab the top, swab the bottom,” Kathy told Lisa Lovero of Cape May.
Donors have to be 18 years old, so most coming to the event here at the high school were not students, though some Caper Tiger seniors signed up. Lovero said her niece, Danielle Draina, of Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three months and now is 16 and thriving.
“Someone did this for her,” Lovero said.
Senior James Wood, 18, of North Cape May, was one of the students who swabbed. Someday he may get a call that he is a match for somebody who needs help.
“Matt’s definitely a role model, but I’m doing this for myself. I’m doing it because I hope to God that I can save a life,” Wood said.
The “Szczur Swab Campaign” drew quite a few police officers and firefighters in the county. They came to help save a life, but, of course, wanted to know all about Szczur’s budding baseball career.
A center fielder, Szczur noted there are some openings this year in the Cubs’ outfield, though his hopes for this year are just to make a couple moves in the minors.
Szczur, the 2007 Press Athlete of the Year who helped Villanova win a national football championship, was expected to be selected pretty high in the upcoming National Football League draft. He said the Cubs’ offer was easy to accept because he could play baseball for 15 years, but in football “one play can end your career.”
Szczur said Chicago Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry has faith in him, and he begins his career believing if he doesn’t make it then it will be his own fault. He intends to make it.
“I always set my focus on becoming a professional athlete,” Szczur said.
People wanted to know whether the $1.5 million had changed his lifestyle. That’s a lot of money in these parts. Szczur, wearing Old Navy pants and Converse sneakers, said he bought a television and a watch.
“I’m a cheap kid. I don’t spend much money. I don’t plan on buying a car or a house. I don’t need to be flashy,” Szczur said.
Bailey was just thrilled to get such a good turnout for the event. He plans to make it an annual affair. Chances are, if Matt Szczur can get back to town to boost the event, he will be here.
“I told my mom and Lance I would do anything to support this, because I knew more would show up. It’s a great turnout,” Szczur said.
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