A 2-year-old girl and a 59-year-old man, and their families, will have a happy holiday season because of the sacrifice made by a pair of young men who, as of Wednesday, neither had met.
That the two young men responsible happen to both be star football players at small colleges located less than an hour apart (across the Schuylkill River separating Pennsylvania and New Jersey), who grew up about two hours apart in south Jersey, is almost a complete coincidence.
The odds against it happening are hard to calculate, and incredibly long.
Yet, it is not a complete coincidence that the infant girl and the older man -- both of whom suffer from a form of leukemia and received bone-marrow transplants within a recent six-month span -- were given new leases on life from the two players: Villanova senior wide receiver Matt Szczur and Rowan senior defensive end Matt Hoffman, respectively.
Szczur and Hoffman became donors either directly or indirectly through the efforts of Villanova coach Andy Talley, who has spent nearly two decades spearheading bone-marrow donation campaigns in the Philadelphia area, and who started a program for college football teams, called "Get in the Game, Save a Life,'' two years ago.
"He's done a wonderful job promoting that, not just at our school, but at other schools,'' Szczur (pronounced SEE-zur) said this week, as the defending FCS champion Wildcats prepared for Friday's national semifinal at Eastern Washington.
Hoffman can attest to that: the initiative to register as a marrow donor that Talley had promoted among his own players since 1993, was started last year at Rowan, a Division III power in Glassboro, N.J. Talley had told his friend and fellow area coach, Jay Accorsi, "and he jumped on the wagon with him,'' Hoffman said. Once Accorsi showed the Rowan players videos provided by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), he added, "We wanted to be a part of it.''
The similarities hardly stop there. Szczur and Hoffman are undersized for their positions -- Szczur is listed at 5-foot-11 and Hoffman weighs 215 pounds. Their hometowns (Cape May for Szczur; Burlington for Hoffman) are about 100 miles apart. Both were passed over by major programs out of high school. Both became stars at their level -- Szczur was responsible for five touchdowns in last week's quarterfinal upset of Appalachian State, and Hoffman was his conference's defensive player of the year. Both are on pace to graduate this spring.
And they both missed games during the last academic year in order to donate their marrow.
Hoffman missed a game in November 2009, after registering a few months earlier. The registry had notified him -- in the middle of class -- that a match had been found, for the older man, and the process of his donating was to begin.
"When I found out I was a match,'' Hoffman recalled, "it was a lot like winning the lottery.''
He wasn't far off. The NMDP doesn't predict the chances of a registered donor being a match for a patient in need, because every need is different based on the illness, age and ethnicity of the patient, among other factors. But Szczur put the odds in the neighborhood of "one in 80,000.''
Szczur knows intimately because, at around the same time, he was notified that he was a match for the little girl, and that he might have to miss a Villanova game -- possibly the national championship game.
His reaction: "Oh man, it was unbelievable.'' He was not scared, he said: "There was no doubt in my mind that I would do it.''
His greatest motivation, he added, was seeing the cancer fight waged by a high school friend in the Cape May area. "I talked to her all throughout the time. She was the first person I called when they told me,'' he said.
Hoffman and Szczur donated through stem cells, a relatively new procedure that is gradually replacing the one most are familiar with -- and which often scares away potential donors even after they sign up: the needle in the pelvic bone to extract bone marrow. Both went through a version of blood transfusion that helps extract white-blood cells for transplant into the patient. It is not without side-effects -- the medication used to accelerate white-blood cell production enlarges the spleen and necessitates the donor not do anything as remotely physical as playing football.
Hoffman shrugged off the choice: "I weighed the options and realized what it means to have a chance to save a life, as opposed to putting up stats in a game that we would probably win anyway.'' (Rowan did, 39-0, over the College of New Jersey.) Szczur shrugged his off as well, even though the game he might miss carries a little more weight.
"I really didn't have a problem with that,'' Szczur said.
Talley (right), his coach, is routinely inspired by how many of his players, other players and college students in general register through his efforts; his program has spread to 30 teams and, he said, has registered nearly 9,000 people. But Szczur's act even impressed him, particularly since it might have taken his most indispensable player out of the biggest game since the program was revived in 1985.
"He was prepared to give up our run to the national championship in order to save the little girl,'' Talley said.
Szczur ended up playing because the procedure for the infant patient was delayed beyond the title game (Villanova won over Montana, with Szczur named Most Outstanding Player). It ended up taking place in May, which meant that he gave up 10 games in his second sport, baseball, at which he is good enough to have played center field in the Cubs' system last summer after being drafted in the fifth round.
In fact, between now and Feb. 10, a date set by the Cubs, Szczur will have to decide whether he wants to pursue pro baseball or football; Szczur has been invited to the Senior Bowl, which will help him make up his mind about his NFL chances. (Yes, Hoffman has a career decision to make soon, too: he was chosen for the Division II and III All-American Bowl this weekend in Minneapolis -- now at the University of Minnesota instead of the still-damaged Metrodome -- and will perform before pro scouts).
"What else could you want?'' Talley said of Szczur. "And on top of everything else, he's a nice guy. We have a saying around here: 'it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.'''
The description also fits Hoffman, said Accorsi, his coach: when told that he was a match, but that he likely would miss a game in order to donate, "he didn't even bat an eye ... It kind of shows you something nice about young people and about the kind of character Matt himself has.''
And the similarities between Hoffman and Szczur still don't stop there.
Szczur's fondest wish is to meet the little girl who received his bone marrow, and her family. All he knows about her is exactly that: that she's an infant girl with leukemia. Bone-marrow donation policy dictates a one-year confidentiality period, to protect both the patient and the donor. Does he know anything else about her besides that? "She's doing well, and that's it,'' he said.
He will have to wait until May for that moment. Hoffman's moment, however, is almost here.
The man who received his marrow, who suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, is heading east from his Texas home with his wife and nine-year-old son to meet Hoffman. The meeting place: Salem, Va., at Thursday's awards banquet for the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Division III championship game. Rowan is not playing (it finished 9-1 but lost out on an at-large playoff bid by a complex tiebreaker), but Hoffman is one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy as the Division III Player of the Year -- at least in part because of his marrow donation last year.
Once the one-year date passed and they actually had a chance to speak, Hoffman knew that if there was a way to meet in person, that he wanted to, and the get-together at the ceremony was set up. "It hasn't hit me yet what I want to do,'' Hoffman said, adding that when he first spoke to the man and his wife, "it kind of hit me what I did. But when I actually meet him, it's gonna be even more powerful.''
It apparently has been powerful already. Hoffman said that the man's wife told him, "You gave my son so many more years with his father.''
"I would love to be there for that,'' said Talley, who can't, because of his team's game on the West Coast.
As proud as Hoffman and Szczur are to have made such a contribution, neither thinks he is that extraordinary for doing it. "It kind of makes me look like a saint,'' Szczur said, "but I'm not. I'm just a normal person.''
"We had over 600 people sign up for it (at Rowan),'' Hoffman said. "It could have happened with any of them, but it just happened to have been me.''
So, on Thursday, Hoffman will find out if he has won the top award in Division III football, and meet the man who was miraculously a match for his bone marrow. The next day, Szczur will try to extend his football career, while eagerly awaiting the late-fall day when he meets the recipient of his own donation.
The only thing left for these two players linked through sport, geography, little-man narrative, exceptional generosity, even first name ... is for them to actually get to know each other. Matt Szczur and Matt Hoffman have never met.
"That,'' Hoffman said of meeting his brother in life-giving, "would be pretty cool.''