When World Series champion Matt Szczur joined a bone marrow registry in 2007 as a freshman in college, he didn’t think much of it. At the time, Szczur (pronounced like “Caesar”) was playing football for Villanova University. His coach, the legendary Andy Talley, encouraged him to get involved with an organization called Be The Match. As its name implies, the group matches bone marrow donors with recipients and raises money to help those suffering from life-threatening blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma, to provide necessary treatment.
“I thought I’d test [to be a match], and if I get a call, great,” Szczur said in an interview with nft now. “If not, it is what it is.”
Fifteen years ago, the chances of matching a donor to a recipient were not what they are today. Bone marrow and cord blood unit donor-recipient pairing relies on matching human leukocyte antigen (HLA) types, something a patient’s ethnic background plays a prominent role in predicting. The more people in the registry, the larger the chances are of finding matches for people in need.
Szczur put it out of his mind until the fall of 2009 when he got a call from the Be The Match registry telling him they had found a recipient for his bone marrow type. “It was right in the middle of playoffs,” Szczur continued. “I went and spoke with Talley, and he put his head down and said, ‘Matt, I know you’re going to do the right thing.’”
That match was a young girl named Anastasia Volkovskaya from Ukraine, whose doctors diagnosed her with leukemia just three months after being born. “Doctors told us that she needs a transplant,” explained Volkovskaya’s father Ivan in an ESPN video on Szczur’s journey to becoming a donor produced for the sports-magazine broadcast series E:60. “But in Ukraine, they don’t do this. They said, ‘Deal with it.’”
Volkovskaya’s parents kept searching for ways to save their daughter, eventually finding a clinic in Israel that could provide the transplant — if they could find a matching donor. They found one in Szczur who was a 100 percent match. On May 4, 2010, Szczur donated his bone marrow in a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) procedure, a non-surgical operation in which doctors separate a patient’s blood-forming cells from the rest of the blood for bone marrow transplants.
It would take a while before Szczur learned precisely to whom he had donated. Confidentiality practices keep donors from learning the identity of recipients they match with for at least a year after the procedure. It deeply moved him when he finally learned Anatasia’s identity and got in contact with her and her family.
“I remember like it was yesterday when I got the email from Be The Match about who she was and where she’s from,” Szczur said. “When I was finally able to get in contact with her — it was very emotional. I now have a son who’s three. I understood the importance of [donating] then, but now, you know, I’d do anything in the world to help my son, and I’m sure that’s how [ Volkovskaya’s parents] felt.”
Volkovskaya’s parents’ appreciation for what Szczur did knows no bounds. “This man gave life not just to one kid, he gave life to a whole family,” said Anatasia’s mother Marina in ESPN’s E:60 video.
Using NFTs to raise awareness and save lives
Throughout his life, Szczur has engaged with art in one way or another. Whether sitting next to his father as a child and watching him make colorful bucktails (anglers’ lures traditionally made from deer hair) or experimenting with painting as a way to decompress from the stresses of being an athlete, it’s a part of life from which he never liked to stray very far.
After going on to play for Major League Baseball and winning the World Series with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, Szczur and his wife Natalie started a non-profit foundation dedicated to philanthropy and charity. To raise awareness for the foundation, Szczur decided to paint two self-portraits and auction them at an event the couple held in his hometown of Cape May, New Jersey. Both sold for $500. Cubs’ management later reached out to commission Szczur to make a painting of the team’s World Series win, which the organization sold for $40,000.
Szczur’s interest and involvement in NFTs would follow soon after. During the pandemic in 2020, fellow MLB player Micah Johnson reached out to Szczur to ask if he wanted to collaborate on an NFT project. “I had read about the blockchain, but I had no idea what it was,” Szczur said. “I knew a little bit about Bitcoin, but I’d never heard of Ethereum. I trusted Micah because he was a baseball player, and I knew he was a grinder. I respected him.”
Johnson suggested creating a portrait of George Floyd, and the two split the portrait in half, each depicting their side of Floyd in their own style. The limited edition piece sold out on Nifty Gateway in under six minutes, and the two used the funds raised from the painting to donate to initiatives dedicated to fighting injustices in the Black community.
Szczur has continued to expand into the world of crypto art, creating pieces that collectors can buy on OpenSea, Nifty Gateway, and SuperRare. His artwork frequently features bones and skeletons, which reflects the awareness he’s trying to raise about bone marrow donations.
Be The Match NFT auction
Having long wanted to work with Be The Match, Szczur found a golden opportunity to do so when a friend who had contacts at the bone marrow registry asked if he wanted to collaborate with the organization earlier this year.
Szczur and Be The Match are releasing two separate NFTs on Nifty Gateway in the coming days and weeks to raise awareness and money for the registry. The first is an open edition piece called Be The Match that drops on Friday, August 26, and will be available for sale for 48 hours. Editions start at $150 each. Be The Match and Szczur are planning on releasing their second collaboration, a different take on his previous skeleton and bone-themed NFT creations, sometime in October.
Half of all the proceeds from the NFT sales will go toward the Be The Match Foundation to help patients looking for a donor and add more potential donors to their registry.
“This is Be The Match’s first experience in the NFT space,” explained Alex Mensing, a Be The Match spokesperson in an interview with nft now. “A partnership with Matt was a no-brainer. He’s been spreading awareness about bone marrow donations through his NFTs already, it’s something he’s super passionate about. It doesn’t get more real than someone who actually donated and saved the life of another human being. That’s our mission.”
One of the reasons both Mensing and Szczur are excited to use NFTs as a way to spread awareness of the registry is because HLA types largely determine who can and can’t match. The more diverse the registry, the greater the chances of those matches actually occurring.
“Right now, you see a disparity in the registry based on the ethnic diversity of the patient who is searching,” elaborated Mensing. “So today, a patient who’s white or Caucasian has a 79 percent chance of finding a match on our registry. But Black or African American patient has only a 29 percent chance of finding a match. And so we’re doing a lot of recruitment to get more people to join the registry. And we have the most diverse registry in the world. It’s just still not diverse enough to meet all of the patient need that exists.”
Szczur’s excitement for and dedication to the cause he’s devoted the last decade to are admirable. Despite the maligned reputation people often attribute to NFTs and cryptocurrencies, he’s adamant about their ability to do good in the world.
“I can say in all honesty that NFTs changed my life,” Szczur said. “From top to bottom. I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished [playing] baseball. So, the transition from baseball to real life was helped so much by NFTs. I know people are skeptical about it, and they have the right to be. Cryptocurrency is so volatile. But they changed my life. I’m grateful for the space.”
The former MLB world champion is even more grateful for the chance to use the technology to spread awareness about a cause in which he firmly believes. His experience as a Be The Match donor is something he says will stick with him his entire life.
“They’re literally saving lives,” Szczur emphasized. “Everybody says there’s no cure for cancer, but here we are doing this, and nobody really hears about it. So, I continue to push for this cure and for bone marrow awareness. I will continue to push this because I saw the impact that it had on my life and the impact it had on this family’s life.”
Those looking to support the foundation’s efforts and help save lives can add their names to Be The Match’s bone marrow registry here.