Penn State's John Urschel hopes to one day work in sports analytics combining his two loves: football and mathematics.
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By Andy Staples
December 04, 2013

Sports Illustrated announced its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16, 2013. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

The mathematician chuckled. "OK, this is a funny story," he said. This couldn't possibly be true, because it was a story about calculus. Then John Urschel told it, and, as usual, he was correct.

When Urschel was younger, the Williamsville, N.Y., native sat in on a calculus class at the nearby University of Buffalo during one summer vacation. He had devoured every math book his mother had bought for him. He had already taught himself algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Yet when Urschel sat in a classroom full of college students, no one questioned him. He's always been big. Not slightly above average, but the kind of big that would help a guy become a first team All-Big Ten offensive guard. "I looked passable for a college kid," Urschel said. "I didn't have facial hair, but I was big enough." Within three weeks, the academic hierarchy of the class had determined itself. Other students noticed the smooth-faced Urschel acing everything, so they asked him for help. Only later did those Buffalo students learn that they'd gotten calculus assistance from a 12-year-old.

That boy genius has grown into a fifth-year senior star on the offensive line at Penn State. He obtained a bachelor's degree in mathematics in three years. Then, while continuing to maintain a 4.0 grade point average, he obtained a master's in mathematics. He's currently working toward a second master's in math education while also teaching integral vector calculus to undergrads. For those of us not quite as adept as Urschel with numbers, that means that he'll likely have three degrees when his athletic scholarship finally expires.

Urschel is my Sportsman of the Year for two reasons. First, he embodies everything that a student-athlete should be. He embraced the opportunities presented in the classroom and on the football field, and he'll probably play in the NFL before he moves on to a mathematics Ph.D. program. Second, his success further highlights the absurdity of the scholarship sanctions handed to Penn State by NCAA president Mark Emmert in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Obviously, Penn State needed to face some punishment because some horrible people in its employ helped cover up the acts of an even more horrible man and allowed him to continue victimizing children. But since Emmert lacked the power to punish the people actually responsible -- hopefully, the criminal court system will do that -- he chose one of the more common methods of punishment the imagination-challenged NCAA employs. He took away scholarships. Before the sanctions were modified earlier this year to give some of those scholarships back, they called for Penn State's football program to lose 10 initial scholarships a year for four years. That means 40 people who were toddlers when Penn State's powerful covered up Sandusky's crimes would have lost the opportunity to receive a free college education.

Had Urschel been born five years later, he would have been one of those denied. Urschel was the 25th commitment for Penn State's class of 2009. He didn't begin to impress FBS schools until his senior season. In January of his senior year, he received offers from Penn State, Boston College and Buffalo. He wanted to play big-time college football, so he had a difficult conversation with his mother, and he picked Penn State. Had Penn State only had 15 scholarships to give that year, Urschel never would have set foot on campus. "If this was one of those years," Urschel said, "I can say with certainty that I wouldn't have gotten a scholarship." Sure, Urschel could have just gone to Boston College, but the NCAA's denial of opportunity would have trickled down through the divisions of college football until it left a player without a scholarship he otherwise would have gotten. Meanwhile, Urschel and Penn State never would have found one another.

Some at Penn State still want to cling to the memory of Joe Paterno, but most know that their school is more than a football team and certainly more than a football coach. Penn State needs as many John Urschels as it can get to prove that point. Even if Emmert hadn't opened the floodgates and allowed any Penn State players to transfer without penalty, Urschel could have left because of the NCAA's graduate transfer rule. He could have sought a master's at Stanford or Cal or Georgia Tech and still played football, but he stayed because he loves his school and his teammates. He was one of the veterans who helped hold the program together as young players mulled offers from other schools.

Penn State needed Urschel, but it almost didn't get him. His mom, Venita Parker, had visions of her son attending MIT. But there was always the football thing. After helping those Buffalo students with their homework as a middle-schooler, Urschel moved on to Canisius High. He grew into a solid lineman, and he wanted to choose the most academically acclaimed university that offered him a chance to play football at the highest level. But Parker clung to her dream. When Urschel was in high school, Parker called the football coach at MIT -- which plays in Division III and doesn't offer athletic scholarships -- to ask if the program might consider recruiting her son. "This guy must have been confused as hell," Urschel said. "He pretty much told my mom that if I wanted to be on the team, I was on the team. Because they didn't make cuts." Before the Penn State and Boston College offers, Urschel and his mom arrived at a compromise. He would go to Princeton. The Tigers play in the FCS, but like the everyone else in the Ivy League, Princeton also doesn't offer athletic scholarships. Urschel still wanted to play at a higher level, and he also didn't want to have to burden his mother by asking her to help pay the hefty tuition at an MIT or a Princeton.

So when the offers from Penn State and Boston College came, Urschel and Parker had a tough conversation. He wanted to go to Penn State, and he had to convince her that he could get a great education in State College while also chasing his football dreams. "I was dead set on going to a big-time football program," Urschel said. "There are a lot of programs in big BCS conferences that have good academics. I told my mother I could always go to MIT or Princeton or Stanford when I get my Ph.D. And I still plan to." After that, Urschel accepted the Penn State offer. "Scholarships are worth more or less to different players, but it meant a lot to me," Urschel said. "I've really tried to make the most of my opportunity. I'm really happy to be on scholarship mainly just to take away that financial strain from my mother. It's great as a son to be able to tell your mom that she doesn't have to take out any loans, she doesn't have to work extra hours."

Urschel probably would be chasing his doctorate at Penn State if his progress on the field hadn't suggested an opportunity to play in the NFL. He played significant snaps as a redshirt sophomore in 2011. He started every game at right guard in 2012 and was named first team all-conference. This rise has only solidified Urschel's guiding philosophy. He can speak casually about playing in the NFL or applying to a doctoral program at MIT because he doesn't believe anyone can achieve at the highest level without first taking aim at dreams that may seem outlandish. "It's OK to have unreasonable expectations," he said. "It's OK to have ridiculous goals."

Urschel tries to pass along that message to younger teammates and when he speaks to high school students. Meanwhile, he is trying to help his own students to appreciate math as much as he does. Most of Urschel's integral vector calculus students are engineering majors fulfilling their final math requirement. Most of them see math as a means to an end. Urschel considers it his first love. In fact, when he does finish football and gets that Ph.D., he hopes to work in sports analytics to find better, more efficient ways to analyze football data and prepare teams for games. That way, he could combine both his passions.

With his undergrads, Urschel has worked to show them how math can apply practically to their careers. He also has attempted to prove to them that a proficiency at math can make them better problem-solvers in any situation. "I've also been trying to help my students with their ability to think originally," Urschel said. "Take what they know, look at a problem that maybe might be unfamiliar with them, but use some original thought to try to find a way to go about it."

Maybe Mark Emmert should sit in on Urschel's class.

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