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For ex-Raven John Urschel, NFL retirement felt more like a change in careers

John Urschel, math whiz and lineman for the Ravens, visits Baltimore County summer school students to teach a STEM lesson. (Michael Ares/Baltimore Sun video)

When John Urschel announced his retirement from the NFL in late July, a lot of people texted him. Former Ravens teammates. Colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Friends who wanted to wish him well and offer their congratulations.

"Although, congratulations feels strange," Urschel said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It's not like I'm just hanging out at home, playing, like, shuffleboard and bridge all day. I'm more or less changing careers more than anything."

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But, he added: "That's kind of a long thing to say, especially when you get a lot of text messages. That's a lot longer to type than 'Thanks.' "

Urschel's decision to leave professional football after three seasons as a Ravens offensive lineman became a flashpoint in the sport's concussion crisis. Here was Urschel, just 26, turning down an NFL paycheck to instead focus on his doctoral work in mathematics at MIT.

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But for all the intelligence of someone who graduated from Penn State with a 4.0 GPA, Urschel underestimated the impact of his announcement. He had hoped to transition to academia quietly. That might have been "wishful thinking," he said. He got more attention than he expected.

One of the smartest players in the NFL, John Urschel, who was expected to compete for the Ravens' starting center job, has retired.

Just two days before Urschel retired, a study on traumatic encephalopathy, a debilitating brain disease, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The report showed the existence of CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players who had donated their brains to research.

Team sources with knowledge of Urschel's decision told The Baltimore Sun that the decision was related to the study, but Urschel suggested the timing was only coincidental. "Correlation and causation are not exactly the same thing," he said.

He added: "I loved my time playing in the NFL. I loved playing for the Ravens. It's a world-class organization, but also I had to move on eventually, and it felt like time to focus on that [rather] than focus on other things in my life."

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Urschel recently started his third year at MIT, where he's working toward a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. On the "Freakonomics" podcast this week, he acknowledged that he was actually enrolled as a full-time student last fall, when he was still playing for the Ravens. During a normal week, he said he would work remotely from when he returned from a game Sunday afternoon until the Ravens reconvened for practice Tuesday morning,

The Ravens didn't know, he said.

"I did not tell anyone this," he told host Stephen J. Dubner on the podcast. "Well, except MIT. But I don't think an NFL team would be extremely happy to hear that I'm working towards my Ph.D. also in the fall."

He expects to finish his coursework in the next two or three years. By then, he'll have a kid to worry about, too: Urschel and his fiancée are expecting a baby girl in December. ("I think it's safe to assume that she's not going to follow in my footsteps," he joked.)

Urschel said he doesn't want to be the kind of parent who pushes a child to do something they don't want, but he does know the value of his experience in athletic competition. Sports can be dangerous, he said, whether it's football or soccer or gymnastics, but "that's just part of playing sports, you know?"

With back-to-school promotions for corporate sponsor Texas Instruments, this week has been a busy one for Urschel, filled with interviews and a Reddit question-and-answer session Friday — maybe something of a nuisance to someone who said he dislikes being "the center of attention." But he plans to set aside some personal time on the couch soon enough. Asked whether he would watch the Ravens this season, he sounded optimistic.

"I think that could definitely be fit in," he said. "I think I might be able to manage that."

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