One of the smartest men ever to play in the NFL turns 27 this Sunday.
John Urschel is a mathematician who played offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens for three seasons. A fifth-round pick in 2014 out of Penn State, he started 15 of 42 NFL games, and was a reliable spot-starter at guard and center for the Ravens.
In July 2017, Urschel – Genius John – was in contention to be the Ravens starting center. He was on pace to replace Matt Birk, a Harvard-educated Pro Bowler who might have been the smartest player in the league before Urschel’s arrival. Entering his fourth NFL season, Urschel retired one day into training camp in order to work full-time on a doctorate in mathematics at MIT.
Urschel destroys the stereotype of the dumb jock. A straight-A student at Penn State, he earned a bachelor’s degree in three years. By the end of year four, he’d obtained his master’s. As a senior, Urschel taught Math 041 – Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry – to undergrads. He is a Mathlete who possesses a unique combination of brain and football power.
While most players sleep or play video games with friends during their down time, Urschel enjoys keeping his mind occupied with math. In his free time, the big man relaxes with spectral graph theory, numerical PDEs, matrix algebra, computational finance or mathematical physics.
John Cameron Urschel was born June 24, 1991, in Winnipeg. His father, a great linebacker at the University of Alberta, had a chance to play in the Canadian Football League but opted instead for medical school. John Urschel Sr. and Venita Parker divorced when their only child was a toddler. John Sr. went on to become a renowned thoracic surgeon, while young John moved with his mother to Buffalo.
When John was a grade schooler, Venita Parker bought her son math and puzzle books designed for children twice his age. He would devour them in minutes and then beg for more. Too big to play Pop Warner, Urschel did not start playing football until high school. He attended Canisius High School, a Jesuit prep school in Buffalo. Parker wanted her son to go to MIT. “I wanted bigger football,” said Urschel. “We settled on Princeton.” After developing into the best offensive line prospect in western New York, scholarship offers rolled in from Penn State, Stanford and Boston College.
Urschel visited Happy Valley and loved it, enrolling at PSU in the fall of 2009. A two-time All-Big Ten lineman at Penn State, Urschel won the William V. Campbell Award, also known as the Academic Heisman, in 2013. A brilliant mathematician, he has the fastest eigensolver for minimal Laplacian eigenvectors. Big Bang Theory is his favorite TV show, and Urschel often wears a tee-shirt that reads “There are 10 kinds of people: Those who understand binary and those who don’t.”
Venita Parker never wanted her son to play football. A nurse who’d later become a lawyer, she’d sit down with her son after every football season and encourage him to quit. “I play because I love the game,” said the 6’3”, 300-pounder. “I love hitting people. It’s a feeling I’m addicted to.”
Urschel scored 43 of 50 on the Wonderlic Test, administered at the NFL Combine. Used to assess aptitude for learning and problem-solving, Urschel’s score was the highest of anyone in his draft class, yet he was disappointed with the result.
For Urschel, math was his passion and concussions a concern. He started his path to retirement after his rookie season. In spring 2015, he applied to the doctoral program in math at MIT. During training camp that August, Urschel was knocked unconscious in a helmet-to-helmet collision. “I think it hurt my ability to think well mathematically,” he said later. He enrolled at MIT in spring 2016.
Once a student starts in the MIT program, he must continue as a full-time student – even if he is a professional athlete. When it came time for Urschel to report to OTAs in the spring of 2017, a thought crept in: he felt guilty about his football career taking time from his math one. On the second day of training camp in July, the 26-year-old lineman called Ravens head coach John Harbaugh 90 minutes before practice to abruptly announce his retirement from football.
Urschel has a 4.0 grade-point average at MIT and has released several research papers. He published a paper in the SIAM Journal of Numerical Analysis on Centroidal Voronoi Tessellations. It was his first solo-authored work, and Erschel is quite proud of it. Quiet and humble, Genius John drives a used hatchback Honda Versa he bought after being drafted by the Ravens in 2014. It cost him $9,000, just a fraction of his three-year, $ 1.8 million dollar contract.
Urschel lives on less than $25,000 a year. He is not frugal: it’s just that his hobbies – math, research and chess – are inexpensive. Urschel, who has aspirations of becoming a chess master, hosts a weekly radio show on Chess.com. After obtaining his doctorate from MIT, the former high school shot put champion hopes to teach and conduct research at a top university.
“It is a simple truth. Playing a hitting position in the NFL can’t possibly help your long-term mental health.” — John Urschel