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College Athletics – One Shining Light Amid the Darkness

I have noted in the past that athletics can serve as a great teaching tool for young people as it provides lessons that cannot always be learned in the classroom. Amidst the competition and physical demands, great coaches can teach youngsters about what it means to collectively strive for a team goal while sacrificing individual gain and even more importantly, how to dust oneself off when he or she falls short of the expectations they have placed on themselves.

But the sorry state of Division I college sports, from the poor graduation rates of athletes to the salaries being paid coaches who have a record of NCAA rules violations to game forfeitures in the name of money, has become nothing short of mind boggling.

A focus on money has led many institutions down a path that teaches nothing about the essence of athletics. Instead, at too may institutions, Division I athletics is about winning at whatever cost, a mindset that has college athletics selling its soul to the highest bidders.

One Shining Light

But at some schools there are still coaches who understand that there is more to athletics that winning and losing. Indeed, there are many individuals who no doubt understand that their leadership can help their young athletes become better people in addition to making them better players.

Holding a swabAndy Talley, the head football coach at Villanova in Philadelphia represents just such a man. Talley was reportedly so affected by a radio show nearly 20 years ago that promoted the dire need for donors of all types that he instituted a bone marrow donor program on campus.

As for his football players, Talley makes participation as a donor a part of his greater football program. His efforts to get a program started has led to nearly 20,000 potential donors who have been tested and entered into the national registry.

Those efforts have led to at least three of his tested players over that period becoming donor matches for someone in need. It is the story of one such donor this past year that demonstrates the difference a coach can make in the life of an individual.

Star Athlete

One of Talley’s most talented athletes, Matt Szczur got his cheek swabbed when he was a freshman as part of the coach’s marrow donor program. Szczur was not a highly recruited football player but the young man had demonstrated incredible talent on the baseball diamond – so much talent that he was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But instead of the world of professional baseball Szczur opted to attend college where he wanted to play football and baseball. He was such a strong athlete that he worked his way onto the football field as a freshman before settling into his main sport, baseball.

The hard-working athlete soon became a star, a legitimate two-sport professional prospect, for the Wildcats programs. But as rare as two sport athletes are, Szczur was actually rarer still.

Because he learned that despite there being just a 1 in 80,000 chance he’d be a match for a stricken patient he was in fact a match for an infant girl. And once he found out, his response was truly something special.

“As soon as I heard that, I was so excited,” Szczur reportedly told Dan Gelston at the Associated Press. “I was so pumped. My roommate was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s like you were drafted or something.'”

Initially, the donation was to take place during the team’s postseason football run. Both Talley and Szczur deemed the chance to help save the life of a little girl to be more important than winning a football title.

iStock_000013986758XSmallBut as luck would have it, medical scheduling changes allowed him to play and help his team to the national title. For his part, he was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the FCS National Championship game.

Instead, the procedure was moved to May where he ended up missing 10 games out of the Wildcats’ baseball season. Those missed games came right before the Major League Baseball draft.

Confidentially rules prevent Szczur from knowing who he specifically donated his stem cells to. He does know the little girl is between 1 and 2 years old and that a year from now he can be told who she is. At that time he could also be given contact info so as to be able to get in touch with her.

There is much more to the Szczur story including his being drafted again, this time by the Chicago Cubs, the bonus he received and his playing minor league baseball. His first major purchase with his baseball money was a necklace for a childhood friend who has also been battling leukemia, a young lady who has been in remission for five years.

He purchased the chain with a dove (representing faith) on it at Tiffany’s. And if he should have the chance to meet one very special youngster next May, it is his goal to deliver a similar gift to her as well.

A Team and a Coach Worth Rooting For

This incredible young man has since returned to Villanova for the upcoming football season (NCAA rules allow athletes to play professionally in one sport while remaining an amateur in another). He, of course, will be playing for Andy Talley, a man who understands what it means to be an educator and leader.

It needs to be said that for his part the coach was presented the Person of the Decade Award by the Temple Bone Marrow Transplant Program of Temple University Hospital last spring.

And after winning one championship last year, his team is ranked number one for the upcoming season in a number of FCS preseason polls.

Both are truly more significant forms of recognition than I could ever offer. But one thing is for sure, this native Mainer has found one college program he can root for come fall.

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