John Urschel found himself in a nightmare, thrust there by a young fan's simple question.
What would Urschel do, the student at Glenridge Elementary in Landover Hills asked, if he lived in a world where he could pursue neither football nor math?
"I was at a loss," said the second-year Ravens offensive lineman. "This sounds like some hell they've sent me to, some terrible place. … It hurt me and cut me as a person to even think about this alternate universe in which that was a thing. I couldn't do it, man."
Urschel, 24, isn't joking. For as long as he can remember, he has thrown his body around a football field or lost his mind in the elegant constructs of higher mathematics. Save for playing chess or his Fender Strat guitar, he's never cared to make room for much else.
That's why he's spent this offseason and time away from the playing field as a math ambassador, talking with young students around Maryland about the importance of math and where it could lead them. At the same time, he's trying to become the best football player he can be.
This juxtaposition of the physical and intellectual has led to some portrayals of Urschel as the ultimate "mathlete." But the 308-pound future Ph.D. is a serious person who aims to find purpose in every moment of his day.
Since he completed his rookie season with the Ravens, Urschel has found a level of popularity unheard of for a reserve offensive guard and center.
He's been interviewed by Rolling Stone, the New York Times and National Public Radio.
He shared his insights on simplifying complex data with the National Security Agency.
Forbes.com gave him space to explain, in something approaching plain English, his paper, "A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians."
Urschel doesn't run from his identity as the baddest nerd in the land. If that were his goal, he would not sport the Twitter handle, @MathMeetsFball. And he wouldn't write a column for The Player's Tribune, an online publication founded by former baseball great Derek Jeter.
In his debut piece, he analyzed the academic majors pursued by Division I football players and found they were just as irregular at academic powerhouse Stanford as at football powerhouse Auburn.
When linebacker Chris Borland retired this spring from the San Francisco 49ers at 24 rather than subject himself to injury, Urschel wrote about why he continues to risk his brain by playing football.
His mother has asked if he's ready to stop after every season, going back to his high school days in Buffalo. "This is not the life she wanted for me," he wrote.
But he feels called to the field.
"There's a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you," he wrote. "This is a feeling I'm (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I'm hard-pressed to find anywhere else."
Despite sharing himself with the world in this way, Urschel considers himself an odd candidate for fame.
He drives a used Nissan Versa hatchback — a strong candidate for the humblest vehicle in the Ravens' parking lot — and lives on less than $25,000 a year to help save money even though his rookie contract was a four-year, $2.364 million deal. He took on a roommate last year to mitigate the cost of the home he leased during the season.
"I'm very much a hermit. I do my football. I do my math, and I like to keep to myself," he says. "As social as I'll get on the weekends is probably doing some math in Starbucks with other people."
But Urschel grasps a few basic realities: Though he loves math just as fervently as football, few kids share his passion for the subject. Because he plays in the most popular sports league in the country, young people are apt to listen to him.
"I don't think that's fair, but that's the way it is," he says. "Kids look up to pro football players. They don't really look up to the world's top quantum physicists. … It's the world we live in. I might as well make use of this opportunity I have while I have it."
So a math ambassador he shall be and he's proud of it.
It's why he recently spent a morning with students in Prince George's County as part of a Discovery Education event, telling them the joys of math and science. It's why, a few days after the civil unrest over Freddie Gray's death, Urschel found himself with a crowd of emotionally roiling students at Douglass High School in West Baltimore.
They refused to quiet for former Ravens star Ray Lewis or team executive Harry Swayne. But after a school official settled the room, Urschel calmly took the microphone and began his story. He held the students' attention.
"I've never considered myself a very good public speaker," he says. "I think the reason, the sole reason, I succeed is whenever I go somewhere and I'm talking to people, I have a purpose. If you put me in a room full of high school kids, and I have no purpose in mind, I'll be that kid in the corner. But you give me some purpose, let me try to convey something to them, then I'm focused. I'm driven to that goal, and I'm precise."
Good role models
He often speaks about his mother, Venita Parker, and the sacrifices she made to give him opportunities in math and football. As a single mother (Urschel's parents separated when he was 3) she coached his soccer teams, attended every school play and viola recital and made snacks for parent-teacher association meetings, all while balancing a career as an attorney.
Urschel, in turn, was an unusually self-directed child who inhaled math from an early age. He earned his allowance by correctly calculating the sales tax on his mother's purchases. By middle school, she stopped asking if he'd done his homework, because he always had.
"He has his own internal GPS," she says. "I never had to tell him to get up and go to practice or get up and do his work."
Parker is perhaps his biggest fan, the one who enjoys bragging on her son.
Urschel's father, John Sr., is stingier with praise. If he beamed inside when his son earned a perfect 4.0 average at Penn State or played his first pro game for the Ravens or published his first academic paper, he didn't let on.
But he was an excellent college linebacker in Canada who went on to become the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston. So in a way, he laid the blueprint for Urschel's life.
"My father is a brilliant man and he just gave me fantastic genes," he said. "Let's not discount the importance of that."
Perhaps because he had such role models, Urschel never felt he had to sacrifice math for football or vice versa.
It was sometimes a fight, his father said, to keep others from shoving him into more traditional boxes. He steered his son away from those who would push him into accounting or engineering, fields in which his gift for theoretical math would be wasted. At Penn State, an academic counselor associated with the football program questioned why Urschel would pursue such a difficult course load.
"Culturally, these things aren't put together that often," John Sr. said. "It's just that he doesn't fit any stereotype. But he was protected by his own will and by his parents saying 'Don't listen to them.' "
Urschel's math mentor, University of Maryland department chair Vadim Kaloshin, said he is "a truly unique individual."
"John is supremely talented mathematically and physically," Kaloshin says. "He is also extremely well-organized. Otherwise, he would have had a hard time doing research mathematics at a very high level, while playing football most of his active time."
Jim Trexler, who runs the Mathnasium tutoring center in Roland Park, says Urschel is a powerful example for kids who might want to give up academic pursuits in favor of extracurricular activities. "Our message with John is look, you can be great at both," says Trexler, a former college lacrosse coach. "Now, he's got a couple of different gears than the rest of us. He's a genius, he really is. But he shows the kids it is possible."
Trexler received a call from Urschel's agent last year, and the player began visiting the Roland Park tutoring center shortly after, often arriving in shorts and flip flops and casually plopping down next to students. He lent his name to an annual scholarship, with the benefits including two one-on-one sessions with the winner.
After Urschel completed the sessions with Kiri Maza, a Baltimore School for the Arts student, he gave her his cell number and said he'd be happy to talk math with her any time in the future.
Time for football, math
Asked if he's a different person when slamming into opposing linemen than when he's working through an equation, Urschel says not exactly.
"It blends together somewhat in that there's this unified competitive nature," he explains. "Even in math, when I'm trying to solve a problem, I get very competitive about it. But it's different in that for football, I just love the physicality of it. In math, there's real elegance to it. There's beauty in taking this construct, which we have made, and using it to explain this fantastic and complex world we live in."
Urschel knows others find it crazy, but he gleans genuine relaxation from dwelling in a theoretical realm of graphs and variables.
As he walked off the field on a hot June day at the end of Ravens minicamp, he already imagined sitting riverside at a vacation home in upstate New York, reading math books as his girlfriend, the writer Louisa Thomas, worked beside him.
But fear not Ravens fans. Urschel is also mastering the center position — where he's expected to back up Jeremy Zuttah in addition to backing up both guard positions.
His improvement at the unfamiliar spot is obvious, said quarterback Joe Flacco.
"I think he's doing a great job getting up there and making calls as quickly as he can and getting the ball back to me really well. I didn't really think that we skipped a beat with him in there this offseason," Flacco said.
Urschel hopes to establish he can start at any of the three positions and to play in the NFL as long as someone will let him. Then he'll give himself over to math and family.
He says he won't rely on others to grade him as he pursues this determined existence. He'll be the judge.
"I'm not displeased," Urschel says when asked for an early assessment. "It's a work in progress."