Canisius High School football coach Rich Robbins was at a coaching clinic in February when the guest speaker, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, claimed he had a lineman who was going to be a rocket scientist.
“The whole room starts laughing like he’s joking, and he stops everyone and says: ‘I’m not joking in any way . . . John Urschel is going to be a rocket scientist someday,’ ” said Robbins.
Expectations are out of this world for the 2009 Canisius High graduate, based on his impressive body of work on and off the field for the Nittany Lions. The former All-WNY player enters his fifth-year senior season as one of college football’s premier student-athletes.
Urschel, a first-team All-Big Ten guard and first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American, needed just three years to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a 4.0 average. He immediately began working on his master’s degree in math, which he should have completed by next month. He recently had a paper published in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy entitled “Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”
Two weeks ago he earned Penn State’s McCoy Award, given each year to a male and female senior who excel in athletics and academics. He’s also in the running for the William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by the National Football Foundation to the nation’s top scholar-athlete.
“The main thing was doing something that I’m good at,” Urschel said by phone this past week. “I’m good at math so it wasn’t really that hard to get A’s. If I were an English major or a history major, there is not a chance that I get a 4.0. I would not get a single A in history class.”
Urschel may be a fourth-year college student, but that didn’t stop him from teaching a section of undergraduate Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry this spring at Penn State. When he’s not teaching three days a week or studying a playbook, he’s doing research in multigrid methods and computational mathematics.
“I knew math came natural for John,” said Staci Shick, a math teacher at Canisius who taught Urschel honors Algebra II-Trigonometry as a sophomore. “He was always asking questions that other students might not even think to ask. He wanted to better himself, to take it to the next level to understand what he’s learning and how it could be applied. If he were to go into math as a career, he would succeed without any problem.”
Having passed the chalk test, Urschel said he wouldn’t mind being a college professor someday.
He said the most difficult part of teaching is trying to convey mathematical topics to students who aren’t as advanced or as interested in math as a subject. He said his class enjoyed a good exchange of question and answers, but he also realizes that his students did not share the same passion for math as he has.
Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 300 pounds, Urschel started every game at right guard last season, opening holes for 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak and protecting quarterback Matt McGloin, who led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 campaign.
“Don’t forget, I’m a football player,” Urschel said. “People talk up the academics, the math, the 4.0, but I can play football. I think that kind of gets left behind. I’m not a math guy who happens to play football. I’m a serious football player.”
Urschel gave a hint as to what his future might hold in high school when he was named Mr. Canisius as a senior, a distinction given to someone who embodies the qualities and character of a Canisius man.
“Oh man, I could talk about that [his Canisius education] all day,” Urschel said. “Canisius is really a great school and does a phenomenal job of preparing you for college life. They do a great job in season, out of season. We used to watch practice film in high school, that’s something you don’t see.”
Urschel was born in Canada, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and moved with his family to Williamsville when he was 4 years old. His father worked in the Niagara-On-The-Lake region so he grew up on both sides of the border.
He returns to his alma mater when he can to visit with coaches and teachers. Canisius Athletic Director Jim Mauro said they were able to spend some time together last summer when he came in to lift.
“John he truly is unique,” said Mauro. “I remember thinking when he left here, ‘This kid could become president.’ I shake my head, that young man has the gifts to do whatever he wants, and do it well.”
In the course of their conversation, Mauro asked Urschel who he hangs out with and was a little surprised by his answer. This mountain of a man confessed to spending plenty of his free time with his fellow math whizzes.
“I don’t really see the need to have one set of friends,” said Urschel, whose Twitter handle is mathmeetsfball. “I definitely hang out with my football friends, we’ll do stuff on the weekends, go out to lunch after a Saturday practice. But at the same time I hang out with the math guys. We’ll have little math parties, we all stick together. I really have the best of both worlds.”
Among Urschel’s football friends is 2012 St. Francis graduate Akeel Lynch, a running back who red-shirted last year. “There’s a big age gap, but we’re friends,” said Urschel. “He’s a Canadian kid, I was born in Winnipeg, we joke around a little bit, and I do remind him who was the champion of our [Monsignor Martin Association] division this year. I want him to keep that in mind.”
Almost Ivy League
While Penn State has turned out to be a tremendous fit for Urschel, his mother, Benita, had other ideas. She would have been perfectly happy if her son had chosen Princeton or Cornell. He finally convinced her Penn State was the better choice after confessing he wanted to give the NFL a shot.
“Princeton – she really wanted me to go there,” Urschel said. “She was very academically oriented. It took me talking to her and saying I might not be that bad at football. I’d like to try and go to the best football school I can. She was OK with that. She said it was my life and she accepted my decision.”
Urschel wants to earn his doctorate after football, but he’s in no hurry for that. The website NFLdraftscout.com ranks Urschel as the 15th best available guard in the Class of 2014. O’Brien has said he believes Urschel has NFL potential.
“John is such a great young man with a bright future,” O’Brien said in an email. “In my opinion, he can be a guard or center in the National Football League. Think about his brain power; so imagine if he goes to the National Football League and plays 8-10 years. And he’s made all that money and then think about what he can do, research and all the great things he’s doing at Penn State. He is a special young man.”
Not only was going to Penn State a good call for Urschel, so was staying there.
He could have left the program without penalty by the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, but he stayed.
Urschel was signed by assistant coach Mike McQueary, a key witness in the case against Sandusky.
“I am very, very happy with where I am,” Urschel said. “Football-wise, academically. I’ve got some great teammates. The offensive line is looking very strong going into the fall, I’m very happy with my decision. I’m very excited for my senior year.”
He’ll remember the late Joe Paterno as the coach who took a chance on an under-the-radar player from Buffalo.
“He brought me to Penn State and gave me a shot. For that, I will always be grateful.”