Matt Szczur has had a very eventful year.
The New Jersey native enjoyed a spectacular junior season on the gridiron -- playing wide receiver, running back and kick returner on a Villanova Wildcats squad that went on to win the 2009 Division I FCS National Championship.
His offensive prowess then carried over to the baseball diamond, as he became the first Villanova player to hit .400 since 1997. The Chicago Cubs took notice, selecting Szczur in the fifth round of this year's Draft.
He signed quickly and went on to hit .347 over 25 games at three levels of play, but his debut professional baseball season was a truncated one. Szczur is currently back in Villanova, preparing for the 2010 football season.
Oh, and somewhere in there he managed to help save the life of a 19-month old leukemia patient.
One step at a time
In 2009, Szczur (pronounced "Caesar") was a force to be reckoned with on the football field. He tallied 2,239 all-purpose yards -- 816 as a kick returner, 813 as a running back and 610 as a wide receiver. The cherry on top of this all-around offensive onslaught was being named MVP of the national championship game, catching two touchdown passes and running for 159 yards as the Wildcats eked out a 23-21 victory over Montana.
A similar performance in his senior year would almost certainly result in an NFL Draft selection, with NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock recently projecting that he would be chosen as high as the fourth round.
Szczur, perhaps not surprisingly, was non-committal when asked which sport he was leaning toward playing professionally.
"We'll make those decisions after the football season," he said. "Right now the focus is on football, to be successful and win the conference championship."
For the Chicago Cubs, however, drafting Szczur was a risk they were willing to take. He received a $100,000 bonus upon signing, with the stipulation that he would receive $500,000 more if he committed to baseball before the advent of the 2011 NFL Combine in February.
"He's a very talented young man with a very high ceiling," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' vice president of player personnel. "What was we saw [in 2010] was a snapshot. We've barely scratched the surface, and there's no telling what the future might hold."
A whirlwind tour
The "snapshot" Fleita is referring to was largely spent with the Class A Short-Season Boise Hawks of the Northwest League, where Szczur hit .397 over 18 games while patrolling the Memorial Stadium outfield.
"There wasn't much adjustment [from college to professional baseball]," said Szczur. "It was a lot better than college, because there were less meetings. It was just show up, do some early work, take batting practice, play the game. ... The biggest difference was that the pitchers have better command, especially with the offspeed pitches."
One of the people who was impressed by Szczur's short time in Idaho was Hawks hitting coach Ricardo Medina.
"[Szczur's] a raw talent; right now he's displaying four tools, everything except power," he said. "He covered a lot of ground in the outfield, had great bat speed, good eye-hand coordination and would lay off tough pitches. He's fast too, a right-handed hitter who can get out of the box quickly and make good time to first base. ... It would be interesting to see what he'd be able to do over the course of a full season."
"Boise was a great environment, working with [manager] Jody Davis, [pitching coach] Jeff Fassero, Ricardo Medina and [first base coach] Gary Van Tol was an awesome experience," said Szczur. "They really prepared me to go to the next level."
That next level was the Class A Peoria Chiefs, where Szczur played his final six games of the season. It may seem odd that he received a promotion just before having to report to training camp with Villanova, but there was a method to the Cubs' madness.
"We looked at [the promotion] as an opportunity to show Matt a new league and a new facility, in order to give him a better taste of what the organization can provide," said Fleita. "It was an opportunity for him to get to know us better, to meet people in the organization and to bring him to Chicago so that he could see the Friendly Confines."
The Cubs took a similar approach with pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who pitched for Boise and Peoria in the summer of 2006 before returning to Notre Dame (where he was a standout wide receiver). The following January, Samardzija signed a five-year deal to play baseball exclusively. He has pitched for the Cubs in each of the past three seasons, but is currently suiting up in Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs' technique in these situations could be characterized as a recruitment effort, but Fleita rejected that terminology.
"I hate the word 'recruit' when it comes to something like this. It's just a chance for us to say, 'here's who we are and here are the people involved,'" he said. "We want to give him a solid basis on which to make a decision, no matter which way it goes."
Szczur's grueling two-sport schedule offers little time off, but a brief reprieve from the playing field came this past March. Villanova head football coach Andy Talley has long urged his players to participate in the National Marrow Donor Program, and Szczur joined the Be the Match registry in his freshman year. This past March he was found to be a match with a 19-month old girl stricken with leukemia, resulting in a donation of peripheral blood cells.
"It was an easy procedure. They took blood out of my arm and the whole thing lasted about three hours," said Szczur, who noted that the chance of finding a match for the young cancer patient was one in 80,000. "It took me about a month to recover. They treat it like mono, because [the procedure] enlarges the spleen."
While Szczur was understated in his retelling of this remarkable event, Fleita cited it as an example of his overall character.
"It gave me goosebumps to hear that story," he said. "His talent is one thing, but the grace and humbleness are off the charts."
And these qualities certainly played a significant role in the Cubs decision to draft Szczur, despite the uncertainty of his baseball future.
"When you run across people like [Szczur], you let your guard down a little and just feel lucky to come into contact with them," said Fleita. "We hope he chooses baseball, of course, but either way he's going to be successful."