For math scholar John Urschel of Ravens, playing football adds up
By By Jon Meoli and The Baltimore Sun
Jul 12, 2014 | 2:50 PM
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.
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.
Urschel redshirted as a freshman, bulking up in the weight room while setting his academic path through Happy Valley. He said people who don't know how to use math brilliance tend toward engineering because nothing else jumps out at them, and Urschel took six of the seven math courses required for an engineering degree in his first semester — including an advanced calculus course and a class on matrices.
Only differential equations remained as a math requirement the following spring, when he decided to try an engineering course to see whether it was truly a fit.
He skipped the introductory offerings, enrolled in a third-year thermodynamics course, and quickly found that the formulaic bounds of engineering didn't allow for the active thinking he preferred. How could he compete with himself if he weren't challenged?
He turned to a math degree the next fall, when Vadim Kaloshin noticed while submitting a report to the athletic department that Urschel was acing his second-level calculus course.
When Urschel came shortly thereafter to submit a letter excusing him from class for a road game, Kaloshin offered him a copy of "Chaos: An Introduction to Dynamical Systems," a book so dense he said it could supply three semesters worth of undergraduate coursework.
Urschel returned two weeks later with half of the book digested.
"I intended to be a good mathematician, but he's the one who really showed me what I could do with math, and he's the one who introduced me to research," Urschel said. "Ever since he took me under his wing, the rest has been history."
From there, Urschel's accomplishments grew. He split repetitions with a senior in his junior year, earned his bachelor's degree and led the commencement procession for the math department as the student marshal the following spring.
He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a full-time starter his senior year. That spring, Urschel's research was published, he taught trigonometry and analytic geometry to undergraduates, and earned his master's in math.
As a fifth-year senior, he continued his research as he worked on his math education master's degree, taught trigonometry and analytic geometry, and earned all-conference honors for the second straight year. Nothing suffered, no matter how much responsibility he had. Urschel wouldn't let it.
"A guy that's wired that way, that's the type of guy you're looking for," said Robbins, his high school coach.
Kaloshin and Ludmil Zikatanov, Urschel's master's adviser and mentor, believe he could join them as academics. Both said the work he performed under them was doctoral-level math, and Urschel said he has designs on getting his doctorate when his playing career is finished.
All football now
But now, he's solely a football player. Urschel bristles at the idea that his two passions might detract from each other. Only one NFL team — the Ravens — brought it up during the draft process, and that was only cursory, moments before they selected him.
Veteran teammates inquire about his background, he said, and second-year lineman Brandon Williams has attempted to christen him "The Professor," though Urschel doesn't think it will catch on.
"Everyone here in the locker room treats me like a football player, and as far as the Baltimore Ravens are concerned, I'm exclusively a football player," he said.
His roommate during minicamp, fellow rookie lineman James Hurst, allows that Urschel is a "different guy" but sees the same passion in him as anyone else on the team.
"He knows what he wants in life," said Hurst, whom Urschel roomed with in minicamp. "He knows that this right now is a very short-term opportunity. You can't come back and do this when you're 40, so he's going to take advantage of it. But at the same time, he loves those things he's good at. He's incredibly blessed to have those [academic] opportunities as well."
Yet you can't shut off a mind like Urschel's, or the competitive motor that turns those gears. He can turn a board game into a bloodletting, bankrupting his family in Monopoly games and forcing his mother and girlfriend all-in during a recent card game that all parties other than Urschel believed to be casual.
During camp, Hurst and Urschel spent downtime playing a board game called "Forbidden Desert," which Hurst believed was Urschel's intellectual fix.
Maybe he had a softer touch with his roommate, a man he could play alongside on the Ravens' offensive line for the next decade. Probably not, his mother said.