Every time John Urschel has found himself at a crossroads, his mother has nudged him toward a life of academia. Every time, football's pull proved stronger.
During his college recruitment, she urged him to forsake high-level college football for an Ivy League education and a future in engineering, but her son pushed back.
"I still have some football left in me," Urschel told her. He chose Penn State, and when his All-Big Ten Conference career ended, she reminded him of his limitless potential in academia and math research. Again he went the other way.
"No, I still love football," Urschel told his mother, Venita Parker.
"It's corny, but that boy loves football," she said. "The practices, the lifting weights, the aches, the pains, the bruises — he loves it all."
Yet Urschel, the Ravens' fifth-round draft pick, loves much more than football. He's an insatiable academic, a veritable math genius who graduated from Penn State with a 4.0 GPA, a bachelor's degree and a master's in math. He published his first research paper, "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem," in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy, and taught undergraduate classes.
He did so while developing from an unheralded recruit into a team captain who was twice honored as the best right guard in the Big Ten and last year won the William V. Campbell Trophy, known as the "academic Heisman."
It all comes from a desire to be the best, Urschel said. That doesn't distinguish him from his new Ravens teammates. How that desire manifests itself does.
Parker and Urschel's father, John Sr., drilled their only son on the importance of education early. He would speed through puzzles and math workbooks as quickly as Parker could supply them, and taught himself math years above his grade level.
With an eye toward a well-rounded son, Parker signed him up for piano lessons and youth soccer. Urschel's competitive streak manifested itself on the youth soccer field, where the score wasn't officially kept, but Urschel always knew the result.
"I would say to him, 'That was a good game.'" Parker said.
"Eh, we lost," her son replied.
"No one kept score."
"I kept score."
"Well you didn't lose, you just didn't win," Parker said. "He cocked his head and said, 'We lost. I don't like losing.'"
At Canisius High in Buffalo, N.Y., Urschel stood out to the new football coaches before his junior year. Coach Rich Robbins said that as his teammates horsed around at the team's summer camp, Urschel lay in bed reading Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."
"That let me know we were dealing with a different kind of kid," Robbins said.
Urschel was a big player in high school — listed at 6 feet 3, 275 pounds as a senior — but Robbins said it wasn't until that year that Urschel's competitiveness broke through for the Crusaders. Football has always been Urschel's outlet for energy and aggression, but Robbins said he had trouble separating the good-natured, caring person that earned him the Mr. Canisius Award from the tough lineman he needed to be.
"He'd be helping multiple people up after every play," Robbins said. "We'd have to tell him you don't have to do that."
When Penn State called, Parker went to the Canisius coaches and asked them to downplay the significance. She relented after then-coach Joe Paterno assured her it was more than a football-only college experience.