John Urschel, offensive lineman for the Ravens and doctoral math student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pulled up a white stool with pink hearts drawn on it, sat in the front of a classroom and tried to tell a room of 14-year-olds he was once just like them.
Urschel gave a math lesson Monday at Franklin High School in Reisterstown to nine incoming freshmen. They didn't share the love of the subject that the MIT math whiz now shows, but Urschel identified with that feeling, too.
"I'm going to level with you," he told the students. "When I was a kid, I was good at math, but I didn't always like math."
He does now, of course, making time in his professional football career to study for his Ph.D. at MIT during the offseason. He regrets that he only seldom gets the opportunity to do what he did Monday, but he enjoys sitting in on high school classes and asking kids about their experiences.
"It's a lot of work," one student told him at the beginning of Monday's class, which was held to give freshmen an opportunity to prepare for the fall. "And a lot of numbers."
"But a lot of numbers is cool, right?" asked Urschel, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in math from Penn State. The kids weren't so sure at the beginning, but Urschel took two hours out of his morning — two days before he reports to training camp to begin his third NFL season — to show them that they can use math, too.
No, Urschel admitted, he never factors polynomials at work. As the Ravens' likely starting left guard, though, he does use his knowledge of quantitative thinking and decision making in guarding against opposing pass rushes.
Urschel knows he is a rare breed, the NFL player studying for his Ph.D. He started taking classes at MIT this past spring and said he has never been happier. Now he will, of course, take the fall off to play for the Ravens before he goes back to Boston in the spring. He has three more years until he obtains his Ph.D and said he hasn't had trouble managing school and football.
Urschel recalls speakers coming into his classroom when he was young and simply trying to talk at the class. As often as he can — about two or three times per year — he instead answers questions and tries to be a resource for whatever the kids need. He left them his email address at the end of the class so they could connect with him further.
"I think I can give them perspective, just a perspective I wish I had when I was younger about how math applies to them even if they don't go into a mathematics field," Urschel said. "And the biggest thing is, I believe, half of being a good role model is just showing up. Showing up, being present."
And while the math he does at MIT — including random matrix theory, numerical linear algebra, advanced algorithms and machine learning — is considerably harder than the work the students do during their summer school in preparation for the fall, he hopes some lessons are constant.
One lesson he taught was the importance of learning, whether it's about matrix theory at MIT or parabolas at Franklin High. Urschel simplified both down to working on puzzles. He expressed his desire to spend his post-football life as a math professor, so he could spend more time on those puzzles.
"The thing I love most about math is that I have this tool kit, and as a professor, you're kind of your own boss," Urschel said. "It's kind of like the coolest job ever. When you're a professor, here's what you do: You get up in the morning. You teach a couple classes so you get to inspire young people in mathematics — people who are math majors, who are science majors, but then people who don't even use math at all, so you get to teach all types and you get to try to instill something in them.
"And then, you teach a little bit, and then you get to do research, which is pretty much a fancy word for finding out whichever little problems or puzzles you think are really cool and just trying to solve puzzles all day."
Perhaps a more important lesson came in persistence. At one point, Urschel stumped the class with a problem about the best angle for a placekicker to launch a field goal try. Earlier, the class stumped him with a sort of brain teaser about certain methods of counting the numbers on dice called "petals around the rose."
The constant, Urschel told the class, is that it is important to keep trying. He recalled revising four different mistakes on the same proof — in his junior year of college, on his master's thesis and twice in writing it for publication — before he corrected it and published it as the Urschel-Zikatanov bisection.
"People mess up," Urschel told the class. "People get things wrong. It doesn't mean you're stupid. It's just a learning process. That's how it goes."