John Urschel’s girlfriend respected his interests, but she decided last spring that enough was enough. She was putting her foot down for the sake of their relationship if not her own sanity. She devised a plan that would enable them to spend more time together if he agreed to make a few sacrifices.
For one day per week, under her orders, he would push math and football to the side. He would close his textbook at 5 p.m. He would not lift weights or work out after 5 p.m. He would not watch video after 5 p.m. He would spend the evening with her. In her mind, a few hours per week seemed reasonable.
“And that’s why she’s my ex-girlfriend,” Urschel said with a laugh. “I’m admittedly a workaholic. I guess I’m single for a reason.”
Actually, he’s single for two reasons: 1) math and 2) football. They are his true loves to the Nth degree, passions that run deeper than any personal relationship he had in college. The breakup with his girlfriend was inevitable. He couldn’t divorce himself from obsessions that were deeply rooted long before he arrived in State College, Pa.
“When you really love what you do, you wake up in the morning and that’s all you want to do all day,” he said. “It’s funny, I’m asked this question about balance, but I have no balance in my life. When it comes to being a well-rounded person, I’m terrible in that department because I love what I do and that’s all I want to do. All I want to do is math and football. End of story.”
Actually, it’s the beginning.
Who is John Urschel?
He’s your typical run-of-the-mill, 6-foot-3, 310-pound, 22-year-old math savant and part-time professor who will leave Penn State with three degrees. He’s a prospective NFL offensive lineman who was given the highest academic honor for a football player and was nominated for Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
The Cliffs Notes version reveals he was born in Canada, grew up in Williamsville, graduated from Canisius High in 2009 and was an unheralded offensive lineman who somehow landed a scholarship to Penn State. A few weeks ago, the guard was named All-Big Ten Conference for the second straight year. What a shame if his story ended there.
In a world where the term “student-athlete” has become a shallow label for athletes disguised as students, Urschel marched to the top of his class, was a three-time academic All-American, became a terrific offensive lineman and campus leader. He has written numerous papers himself, but he’s also been the subject of several others at Penn State.
Last week, he was awarded the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is known as the academic Heisman and sadly is less heralded in our football-mad country. The other candidates should be proud of being nominated, but picking Urschel had to be a no-brainer. He considered the award his greatest accomplishment so far.
He has a master’s degree in mathematics and another master’s in math education while carrying a 4.0 grade-point average. His ability to tackle math has led his work to be published in brainy, other-worldly publications such as Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy, which printed his paper, “Instabilities in the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”
Take that read for a spin and see how long you last. Many an intelligent mind has attempted to make sense of his work and come away feeling humbled. The titles alone have left friends and family laughing, knowing the absurd intelligence required to write them let alone comprehend them. “A lot of people read my paper and really think it’s funny,” he said. “You know, that wasn’t the angle I was going for.”
Too many athletes today aren’t doing the math. The only numbers they recognize are the ones after the dollar sign. They forget the biggest number is 1, or the number of injuries that have derailed many a career. He’s going to play football as long as he can before getting his PhD. His Twitter handle: @mathmeetsfball.
Why, of course.
Talk to him for a few minutes, and you realize he’s both freakishly smart and strangely normal, the most intelligent player on the team and the toughest kid in the classroom. He’s extremely competitive whether it means butting heads with defensive linemen or tirelessly racking his brain over math problems far too complex to explain.
He has math friends who know nothing about football and football buddies who will never understand his level of math. On any given night, he could be watching football and exchanging wisecracks with his teammates or enjoying pot-luck dinners and exchanging ideas with rising mathematicians.
“Two very different types of people,” Urschel said. “I have friends in both circles. I really like my math friends, and I really like my football friends.”
Ty Howle is closer to him than anyone, figuratively as Urschel’s best friend on the team and literally as Penn State’s starting center and his road roommate. Howle knows him from every angle. He has watched him labor over math problems the night before games, exercising his mind before testing his body.
“He’s not just the math-football guy,” Howle said, “He’s a normal, regular guy. He likes to go out and hang around me and all of our buddies. He’s always in the mood for a joke. I like to express that side of John. You think about a mathematician, and you think about some Russian scientist and you can’t joke with him.
“John is a normal human being who has extraordinary gifts. He’s a great football player and a great mathematician but a better person. He’s humble. He’s always there for his friends. I want people to know the real John Urschel. He’s into math and football big time, but he’s a great friend.”
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien told USA Today a story last summer about a color-coded chart to track players so the staff knew which would be arriving late to practice or leaving early for class.
“Green is freshmen, blue is sophomores, red is juniors, yellow is seniors,” O’Brien told the newspaper. “And then I see purple. I’ve never seen that before. So I ask our academic guy, ‘What’s purple?’ He tells me, ‘That’s Urschel. He’s not taking a class. He’s teaching one.’ ”
Urschel was hired to teach Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry at Penn State last semester while juggling his busy football schedule and working on his second master’s degree. The paid teaching gig took him back to a course he took at the University at Buffalo after his mother grew tired of watching him read math books all day.
“Who reads a book on math?” said his mother, Venita Parker, a former nurse who is now a practicing lawyer in Washington.
Urschel does. His name is pronounced UR-shil, by the way, and not Urkel, which you may think. He rolled through high-level algebra courses in third grade. He took a summer calculus class for business majors at UB and showed early that he was breezing through the material. Before long, other students began asking him for help.
Little did they know, he was an oversized 12-year-old going into seventh grade.
“I never really thought he was a genius,” his mother said. “He’s gifted in math. It comes easy to him. Is he a genius? He’s gifted, and he worked at it. That made him stand out. For him, if there’s a solution to a problem, that’s the challenge. He’s internally driven, He never competes with anyone else. He’s always trying to challenge himself.”
Urschel was a math whiz at Canisius, but he figured it was just an easy subject for him. He has since realized it’s his gift. Blessed with a great quantitative mind, he flew through high-level classes at Penn State. Football was a different matter. It was a product of hard work. Landing a scholarship was yet another story.
He was lightly recruited as a 260-pounder his senior year at Canisius. UB was among the good schools interested in him, but he was reaching higher academically. His mother encouraged him to play Division III ball at MIT. He considered Princeton even though the Ivy League doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.
Penn State handed him its second-last scholarship, the 24th of 25, and made him its seventh offensive lineman in his class. He was little more than a depth player who would only see the field in an emergency. But it was an opportunity to play in the Big Ten, the conference he followed as a Michigan fan during his childhood.
Urschel redshirted as a freshman, made a commitment to working out and gained enough weight to compete for playing time. He could have left Penn State after the sex scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which led to legendary head coach Joe Paterno’s exit, but he was committed to staying and attending grad school.
He continued working on his craft, learned every aspect of the offense, studied opposing defenses and became a starter during his sophomore season. His high IQ carried into football. He combined his smarts with his athleticism and was named all-conference the past two years. For all that had gone wrong at Penn State, he became a symbol for everything that was right.
“He’s really smart football-wise, too,” Howle said. “He has an opportunity to play in the NFL.”
And that’s the plan, at least for now.
Urschel was adamant about getting his second master’s degree in the fall semester, freeing time for him to prepare for the draft. He has been projected as a late-round draft pick on various draft-related websites. If he doesn’t get selected, he’s certain to get an opportunity as a free agent.
If it doesn’t work out, he will resume his academic career at an elite institution. The names of the possible universities effortlessly roll off his tongue. He will be accepted to the school of his choice. Who wouldn’t want a student with two master’s degrees in less than five years and never had anything lower than an A?
“Whether it’s MIT or Stanford or Princeton, I’m going to have one of their degrees on my resume eventually,” he said.
Urschel is looking to stay in the game one way or another. That’s where this great math whiz with a great football mind – or is he a football star with a gift for math? – could end up making a good living. He’s following his two passions and not letting anything, or anyone, stand in his way.
Analytics have become more popular in sports. Most, if not all, NFL teams are crunching numbers to some degree in their search for every advantage. The game is becoming a science, a study in human behavior that’s based on probability and statistics as they relate to both sides of the ball. Math really is meeting football.
Finally, he found a relationship that works.
“Trust me, it’s something I would definitely welcome,” Urschel said. “When I’m old and done with football and nobody wants me anymore, it’s a way of staying close to the game while also pursuing my love for mathematics. That really would be a marriage of my two loves.”