Why would a mathematician delay his Ph.D. to be an offensive lineman for the Ravens? John Urschel chalks it up to the incalculable thrill he gets from hitting people
This is an article from the Aug. 24, 2015 issue
A DAY IN State College, Pa., with the Ravens' second-year right guard, John Urschel, begins normally enough: pulled pork sandwiches, a stroll on his old college campus and, O.K., a game of chess. Then the afternoon takes a turn. "Wanna meet my buddy?" Urschel asks. "He gets out of class at four."
Here is the first indication that the 24-year-old Urschel is no typical NFL player. While his peers flash their plump bank accounts by purchasing Escalades or Bentleys—or sometimes both—the 6'3", 313-pound Urschel climbs into a used Nissan Versa hatchback, his sole rookie splurge. He drives six miles down winding roads and pulls into a development crammed with cul-de-sacs. He walks into a nondescript colonial, slides off his size 16 Nikes and is greeted by, well, not your typical entourage: Ludmil Zikatanov, a 52-year-old Penn State math professor, and his wife, Albena.
"John!" the petite woman proclaims in a thick Bulgarian accent before slipping to the pantry to prepare plates of figs and babka.
"Come in, come in," the professor says, though Urschel has already moved toward the kitchen, where he will set his laptop down and help himself to the espresso machine.
For the next three hours the man tasked with protecting Joe Flacco from the nastiest defenses of the rough-and-tumble AFC North will sit at this table and discuss ... complex mathematical models.
I THINK WE all know what John does outside of football is special," says Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo. "But none of us really understand how special."
Two months after the Ravens lost to the Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game—in which Urschel neutralized nosetackle Vince Wilfork and cleared paths for Justin Forsett to gain 129 yards—the Journal of Computational Mechanics published a paper by Urschel, a breezy 16-page read titled "A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians." It was his fourth published research paper, if you discount his handful of posts on Derek Jeter's website The Players' Tribune.
At first glance Urschel's interests don't appear to intersect with those of the NFL, which is currently concerned about head injuries, among other pressing issues. Urschel's agent has warned him against speaking too much about math, on the assumption that some teams might assume the lineman has other career possibilities and might hesitate to sign him to a second contract. (One rival GM calls this idea "preposterous.") On the other hand, some professors must be wondering why a promising mathematician with a master's degree is delaying his Ph.D. to bulk up and play a violent sport.
Urschel, who says he lived on less than $25,000 last year, despite earning an average salary of $591,000 from his four-year deal with the Ravens, doesn't feel compelled to explain his dueling disciplines. Why should he be penalized for being successful in two fields?
"The way we see it," says Ravens veteran lineman Marshal Yanda, "is the kid loves to hit people, and the kid loves math. As long as he can produce on the field, what the heck?"
IT'S NOT that the school system failed Urschel but rather that teachers didn't know what to do with him. This was first apparent in suburban Buffalo, where an elementary school teacher told Venita Parker that her seven-year-old son might have processing problems. He was quiet but didn't seem to be paying attention. Perhaps he should repeat first grade. Parker, an attorney with a master's degree in biomedical science, and John Urschel Sr., a retired thoracic surgeon, disagreed. Young John took an intelligence test. The results were astounding.
The school called an audible. Perhaps John should skip a grade.
His parents placed him in a different school instead, but still, John was rarely engaged. In math class he would doodle, sleep, daydream, read Sun Tzu's The Art of War—and ace every test. His parents challenged him to beat them at chess (he began doing so at 10), gave him Rubik's Cubes (solved in less than 60 seconds) and, in eighth grade, had him audit a calculus course for business majors at the University of Buffalo. By that point John had grown to a beefy 6 feet, so it was not too surprising when college students asked him for pointers.
He also took piano and viola lessons and played soccer and lacrosse. He wanted to play football as well, but he was too big for Pop Warner, and the team at his middle school couldn't find a helmet large enough for his head. He picked up the sport in high school, pleasing his father, a onetime linebacker at the University of Alberta.
John loved the mental discipline of football, but he enjoyed the physicality just as much. As a senior at Canisius High he was an all-state defensive tackle and was offered a spot on every Ivy League roster. Penn State gave him his only Division I opportunity. An inherent competitor, he became enamored of Joe Paterno's ideal of the student-athlete—best in the classroom, best on the field—and chose Happy Valley.
But there, too, Urschel frustrated school administrators. He told his athletic advisers he wanted to take math courses. Lengthy arguments ensued. "They would say, 'John, that's a terrible idea; that class is too hard,'" he says. "They'd say, 'Why don't you sign up for the Life and Thoughts of Martin Luther King? Or a communications course? The transition from high school to college is difficult. [Find out] what you're into.'" Urschel wonders how many student-athletes have had their serious interests doused by risk-averse counselors. Not he. Stubborn, at times feisty, he knew what he was into.
By the summer after his freshman year Urschel was in 400-level math courses, an 18-year-old among master's and Ph.D. students. For "fun nighttime reading," he says, he took along a math textbook to the 2011 Outback Bowl despite a scolding from teammate Devon Still, who protested, "Dude, it's a vacation."
Inevitably Urschel adopted the role of Nittany Lions tutor. Teammates regularly scheduled appointments at his off-campus apartment. "I can't tell you how many grades he saved," says guard Miles Dieffenbach. The same way the team saved him from a narrower college experience.
"I'm grateful for football," Urschel says. "It forced me to be well-rounded. It forced me to go out on a Friday night and not just stay hunched in my room poring over problems."
URSCHEL, UNSURPRISINGLY, is popular on the career-day and math-club circuits. A cynic might see his @MathMeetsFball Twitter account as a marketing ploy, but he uses so many math phrases in conversation—"Problem solved!" "There's the proof!"—that it's hard to tell which are conscious and which are not.
During the 2015 NFL draft Urschel moonlighted as a football analyst for ... General Electric. Wearing a sweatshirt that read MATHLETE, he stood before a chalkboard and posted videos on the company's social media accounts calculating, for example, how fast No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota could launch the ball downfield (56 mph).
Urschel would love to start working on his Ph.D., but what program would accept a student who could miss weeks at the beginning or end of the semester for football? "I'll apply to Stanford, Caltech, Princeton and MIT," he says, "the second I hang up my cleats."
If he didn't have to return to Baltimore for minicamp in mid-June and then training camp in late July, he would have spent the off-season teaching a course at Penn State. When he began his master's during his fourth year, he taught a section of Math 041: Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry. He told students he was "Mr. Urschel, but just call me John." It didn't take long for a few to realize this wasn't any old John, and his teaching stint instantly became Twitter and message board fodder. Even now he can't spend 20 minutes at a State College Starbucks without being asked to pose for a selfie. A student approaches our chess match to engage in a debate about the merits of the French Defense. Then he not-so-casually slips his true motivation for striking up a conversation: "Hey wait, you're that math football player, right?"
"Ha, yeah," Urschel says, with an awkward smile. "That's me."
Part of Urschel's appeal is that, despite his accomplishments, he seems relatable. He's an overachiever with humility. When the Ravens drafted him in the fifth round, they had modest expectations. "At best he would probably be a practice-squad player," says Castillo, the O-line coach. Yet Urschel outworked his rivals, ousting veteran A.Q. Shipley for a roster spot. "Yeah, we make jokes about John being smart, like 'Go fix the iPads,'" says Yanda, his fellow lineman. "But it's not really a big deal. I respect him because he was the perfect rookie. He shut up and did his job."
Because of injuries to other linemen, Urschel started five games, including two in the playoffs. With Yanda and Kelechi Osemele returning at guard, Urschel is slotted as a reserve, though Baltimore could groom him as their future center. During the season, Urschel insists, his full attention will be on football, even if he's not quite like his gridiron peers. Just as Urschel's Versa is sandwiched between two monster pickup trucks in the Ravens' parking lot, he embraces his double life, as unusual as it may be.