After the sleepless nights and the anxiety, Matt Szczur’s deliverance came unexpectedly. Faced with the biggest decision of his life and battling to figure out a way to have it all, the Villanova wide receiver/outfielder/Good Samaritan needed some help. Not the kind of parental advice that provides clarity, or a bit of direction from his coaches. That stuff was readily available and, frankly, of no real assistance. He needed something more.
“It was a real stressful time,” Szczur says. “People kept asking me, ‘What are you doing?’ All I could say was, ‘I don’t know.’”
Szczur was in a tough spot. As the Major League Baseball Draft approached last June, he wanted a team to pick him, give him some money, let him play ball during the summer and then free him to return to school for his senior football season. Why not ask for an end to world hunger and some good taste shown by the Jersey Shore crowd, too?
“No teams were saying I could play football and baseball,” he says.
That was the root of his unhappiness.
When faced with situations like this, people often begin rationalizing. Or, they concoct scenarios to protect themselves against having to make decisions. Szczur was no different. Afraid that something might come along and force him to give up football—and the teammates with whom he had forged an unbreakable bond—he set such a high figure for his bonus as a second- or third-round pick (where he was predicted to go) that few, if any, teams would match it. If someone did, it was good-bye gridiron. If not, he would go back to the Wildcats, with an eye on the 2011 NFL Draft—and maybe baseball—down the line.
The draft started. So did the waiting and worrying. In the end, the Chicago Cubs not only selected Szczur in the fifth round, they also offered him exactly what he wanted. The pressure was off.
You hear all that talk about a perfect world? Szczur’s had become just that. And this February, he’ll have to do it all over again.
Szczur is the rarest of college athletes, someone with the opportunity to play professional baseball and football. He’s a tough, gifted receiver who dazzles on kick returns, carries the football like a running back, and can even throw it. On the diamond, he has an above-average arm, a hitting stroke that makes the ball jump, and exceptional speed.
The Cubs think so much of him that they paid him $100,000 for one month of ball last year. Yep, one month. The NFL likes him enough to have invited him to the Senior Bowl, the top college all-star game.
“It certainly is not an easy decision,” says Cubs director of scouting Tim Wilken.
Wilken and the Cubs would sure like to simplify things for Szczur. If he decides to play baseball, he’ll get the remaining $500,000 of his bonus. He’ll also have a bright future with the club. “He gives you the possibility of a frontline centerfielder and a frontline outfielder,” Wilken says. “He’s got great speed and extra base power.”
Szczur knows the Cubs like him. Trouble is, he likes football. A lot. That’s why he wanted to be back at Villanova for his senior season. He wants to play in the NFL.
“They know he’s a tough kid, and they know he can contribute consistently on special teams,” says Mike Mayock, NFL Network’s draft analyst. “He’s a raw route runner, but he has good hands, and he’s explosive. There is value to Matt Szczur.”
In the beginning, it was all about baseball for Szczur. He even skipped a few football seasons to devote himself to the diamond.
During high school, Szczur was a catcher because his older brother, Mark, was a pitcher. Matt caught Mark in the backyard, so it followed he would catch him in games.
On the football field, Szczur was a running back—until he was a quarterback. At no time was he a wide receiver. When Villanova receivers coach Brian Flinn pitched him to headman Andy Talley as a pass catcher, the boss was a bit wary.
“He was what you would recruit as an ‘athlete,’” Talley says. “Brian really felt he could be a receiver, but I was concerned.”
Flinn knew better. Szczur had been a regular at Nova’s summer football camps. “I put him through every receiving drill possible,” he says.
Flinn also watched tapes of Szczur running the option as a QB at Lower Cape May Regional High School, marveling over his return skills. “He was a perfect slot receiver,” he says.
While Flinn pitched Talley, Villanova’s baseball coaches sold Szczur. When it came time for them to offer him a scholarship, Szczur told them he already had one—from the Wildcats football team. “The football coaches didn’t know I was a baseball player, and the baseball coaches didn’t know I was a football player,” Szczur says.
Flinn says that’s not entirely true. But neither side understood how much the young man was devoted to the other.
But there was no problem. Szczur played football; he played baseball; and everybody won. By the 2009-10 school year, it was clear Szczur had some real options. The Dodgers drafted him in the 38th round out of high school, but Szczur had improved considerably. As the 2010 MLB Draft approached, he was considered a high-round prospect—and franchises don’t draft high-round prospects to wait around for them to decide their futures.
Trouble was, Szczur had been named a first-team All-American in 2009 for Nova’s national champion football team. So the NFL is an option. Mayock says Szczur has third- or fourth-round potential. Those guys make the team and play—often right away as rookies.
If Szczur has a strong Senior Bowl against some of the nation’s finest players, he will definitely choose the NFL. Then again …
“My people tell me he really wants to play baseball,” says a personnel executive with the National Football Conference.
The good news? If the NFL doesn’t work out, Szczur can always go back to the Cubs.
A drive to compete is one of Szczur’s hallmarks. So is the toughness that makes him so attractive to the NFL.
That’s why it was so hard for him to miss most of the 2010 season with ankle sprains. On a crisp Tuesday in late November, Szczur was telling everybody who’d listen that he’d “run around” that day. He couldn’t wait to get back on the field, which he did in the regular-season finale at the University of Delaware. As you might imagine, the inactivity was not sitting well with him, especially for a guy who played part of his freshman season with a sports hernia. “I had no idea,” Flinn says of that injury. “I didn’t see any difference in the way he practiced.”
Anybody who wants onto the field that badly is a perfect candidate for Villanova’s bone-marrow donation registration program, which Talley started in 1992. Szczur signed up as a freshman and thought nothing of it—until last spring, when he learned he was a perfect match for a young leukemia patient.
Because of the medication he needed to take, Szczur would miss two weeks of the baseball season. But, unlike his struggles in choosing a professional path, this decision was an easy one. His best friend from home, Lauren Mulholland, had overcome leukemia as a child.
Szczur will be the first person in his family to graduate from college. When he was negotiating a contract with the Cubs and they agreed to pay his tuition at Villanova this year, he became preoccupied with which walk-on should get his scholarship. It’s one thing to be a great baseball or football player (or both); it’s another to be a great human being. His bone-marrow donation was selfless and rare. Everything else about him is pretty good, too—just ask anybody who knows him.
“I’m very impressed with him,” Wilken says. “He’s as sound a human being as he is an athlete. Guys like him don’t come along very often. That’s why we did what we did.”
Now, Szczur is going to do what he has to do. Expect him to make the right choice—even if it costs him some sleep.
Michael Bradley is a sports writer and analyst for the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, 97.5 The Fanatic/950 ESPN and other outlets. He lives in Broomall. Visit his blog at elhombreknowssports.blogspot.com.