Here’s a puzzle: Do the qualities that allow a man to block 300lb bodies every day have anything to do with the qualities that allow the same person to solve three-body problems late into the night? Stumped? John Urschel can solve that puzzle for you.
Urschel is a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics from Penn State, and is currently pursuing a doctorate at MIT. And now he has written a memoir, Mind and Matter, about how his love of football and his love of math fit together. “When I was very little, I loved puzzles,” he says. “I loved solving problems. And that’s math, and I was fascinated with that sort of thing. And in high school, I started playing football and I fell in love with it. And then when I got to college and I started taking college math courses, then I really fell in love with math again, and that’s when I really discovered what mathematics is, and that I would be a mathematician.”
On why he decided to play pro football despite the risks
First of all, this wasn’t really a plan of mine. I have to say, when I was a kid, I loved watching college football, you know, football in the Big 10. [University of Michigan offensive tackle] Jake Long was my hero, and I wanted to be a Big 10 offensive lineman. And here I am, I’m a senior at Penn State, I am a Big 10 offensive lineman, and I’m living my dream. And I thought, okay, pro football seems available to me, people are talking about it, they have me on projection draft lists, and I said, you know what? Math can wait a little bit, and I’m going to go play football at the highest level, because I can come back to math later, but I can’t come back to try professional football.
On the possibility of brain injury
It was something that I had thought about at some point, and I recognized that there are those risks, and I was aware of them, but I was already aware of them, and I had already made my decision.
On getting a concussion in practice and being briefly unable to do complex math
When I had the concussion, as crazy as it seems, I was really frustrated, more than anything, that’s the right adjective, in that I love football, I love math, and I couldn’t do either of those things at that moment. And it really bothered me. But once I got better, and I was back to doing football and doing math, I thought, okay, if this happens again, I really need to think and reevaluate, but I like where I am right now, and I want to keep playing football and keep doing math, and I’m going to just keep doing both of those things and, I’m forget about this … and I did.
On what factored into his decision to retire
Things about mathematics, you know, looking at my career going forward, sort of thinking about — at that time, I was going to become a father, and so this is something I started thinking about, spending time with my daughter, being able to walk my daughter down the aisle. Being able to, when I’m 60 and 70, being able to run around, have my knees be okay, my shoulders okay, my back okay. Of course, you think about your head as well, but it’s a very holistic thing. The NFL can really do a number on your body, and a lot of people are focusing on people’s heads, but it’s sort of all over. And I’m blessed to have played three years in the NFL, and by NFL player standards, retired completely healthy. Not by normal people standards, but by NFL standards, I am as close to completely healthy as you can get.
On being an African American in math
I recognize that because I’m a mathematician at MIT and I play professional football, I’m in the spotlight. And I have a responsibility to use this platform to show people the beauty of mathematics. To show people playing in the NFL, this isn’t your way out. You can do something mathematics. You can do something in STEM, even if you don’t necessarily look like what the majority of people in that field look like.
And I have to say, okay, if you look at the field of mathematics, if you look at elite American mathematicians, there’s almost no African Americans. There aren’t many of us in PhD programs, there’s not many of us as undergrads, and what you’re sort of left with is the sad realization that there are brilliant young minds being born into this country that are somehow being lost — either because of the household they’re born into, or their socioeconomic situations, or sort of the social culture in their community. And this isn’t just a disservice to them, this is a disservice to us as a country.
This story was edited for radio by Elizabeth Baker and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.