As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.
He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.
Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.
Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?
He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.
In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.
Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you write this book?
I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.
What do you hope people take away from it?
I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.
Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?
First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.
Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?
Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.
Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?
There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.
Do you consider yourself a genius?
What is a genius anyway?
I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.
Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?
I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.
Do you think college athletes should be paid?
Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.
What do mathematicians do?
What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.
How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?
Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.
Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?
Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.
You’re kidding me. How is that possible?
I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.
So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.
No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?
In what ways do you miss football?
One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.
How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?
Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.
Why are there so few African Americans in math?
You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.
One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?
I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.
Athletic success may get you through the door, but be mindful, once you get here: “Stick to sports.”
There has been an unspoken expectation and, more recently, an apparent insistence that athletes’ opinions and passions are to be kept quiet. But the cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete has pushed back on this narrative.
We asked several artists of color to examine and interpret the current “state of the black athlete.” Here’s what they came up with.
I often find that no matter the sport, brothers in the game continuously have to prove themselves worthy of the pedestal they are heavily burdened with. I say brother because to me, every black athlete represents someone like myself — a black kid chasing his dreams — finding inspiration in the actions of the people already paving the way.
Represented here is Anthony Joshua’s raised clenched fist after he defeated Wladimir Klitschko. To the many black youths who happened to be watching that day, witnessing that gesture meant more than just a show of celebration. This gesture symbolizes a show of solidarity.
My goal with this illustration is to address the commonalities between black professional athletes and the black victims of police violence — it highlights the incredible amount of responsibility black athletes have and the role sports fans play in the current wave of athlete activism.
The sprinter in the illustration is focused on the finish line, while his shadow represents the young black victims of police brutality, symbolizing the constant fear that all black men and women face in today’s society.
Both the sprinter and his shadow are running away — in the same direction, illustrating the chilling similarities between black professional athletes and the victims we see on the news.
The crowd supporting the runner changes from sports fans (right) to protesters/activists (left). This begs the question, who is the black athlete competing for? How has this wave of black athlete activism changed the mentalities of sports fans?
I wanted to capture black athletes in a contemplative state. These competitors have or have had the ability to reach so many people — it’s a great responsibility, but can also be a great burden.
Athletes, in general, already have to deal with so much: unwanted attention, pressure, rumors, performance anxiety, and even more. Black athletes, have all that on top of feeling as though they aren’t 100 percent accepted in their own country.
Today’s current state of affairs feel special. I think it’s a time where the life of a black athlete/person is so much bigger than the self, and the athletes in my illustration represent the contemplation that comes with it.
John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2017 to pursue his studies as a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His retirement came suddenly, just two days after a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found nearly all former NFL players who donated their brains to science had signs of CTE.
It seemed the two were connected.
Urschel knows the all-too-real statistics that injury risk is high and the average NFL player’s career spans between two and five years.
He should inspire the next generation of would-be ballplayers in any professional sport that their studies in college are not supplementary. There is a life after the NFL. I appreciate him as a Renaissance man.
What Huey P. Newton has taught me is that I have the power to change my condition, and it’s vital that we stand up against the unjust and fight for what we believe in, even if the cost is high. Until these players start worrying about the issues concerning the state of black people in this country and not about their paychecks, they are still a part of the problem. Yes, you may lose your job, but is that job more important than the condition of your people? Young black teenagers being gunned down in the street every other week? We all should have the courage to sacrifice for the greater good.
What would these leagues be without black people anyway?
I likened the movement of sprinter Allyson Felix to when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Representing Felix overcoming obstacles faced by a black woman, especially in the athletic world — just dominating. I am drawn to her composed personality while being able to be strong-willed at the same time. She really represents the metamorphosis of a butterfly — in all her beauty, swiftness, and, most importantly, freedom.
In a time where black bodies are on public display and seemingly viewed to hold no value, I have attempted to find a way to turn tragedies within the black community into works of art.
“Above All Things” represents the ability, and, more importantly, the necessity for women of color to go above and beyond in all we do just to receive fair recognition. The expectations are higher for us.
We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity when it comes to providing, performing or competing. So we use our excellence as a form of protest: a demonstration of strength, acceptance, womanhood and visibility.
The state of the black athlete is conflicted.
Athletes grow up simply loving the game. As they grow older, outside factors come into play that can inhibit that love: notoriety, fame, special treatment, money, etc. Players can also become public figures and role models. Black athletes are stuck between these two worlds.
As an athlete, you have the keys to success to take care of yourself and your family, but on the other end, you sacrifice your voice and ability to speak on anything political — you’re told to stick to the game. As a black athlete, you’re expected to enjoy your riches and fame in exchange for your voice, choices and ethics.
This piece references the Afro-futurist interpretation of the slavery project in the Western Hemisphere as a centuries-long genetic experiment, as well as the Sankofa concept of looking backward and seeing the future.
In choosing materials to make up the image, I imagine the middle passage as a thrusting or throwing forward into the future of mass amounts of human capital. With the crown of shards, I seek to reference the toll that many professional sports take on the body and also the regal state of being at peak physical form.
Robert Generette III
The statement on the tape, “PLAY,” not only states a command but also commands attention. I wanted the art to speak to different sides of the argument: players who comply, players wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, and fans for or against athletes’ choices.
In the illustration, a spotlight is placed on an ambiguous African-American athlete who is shirtless, which suggests he’s baring it all. For the athletes who comply with “shut up and play,” the red arrow symbolizes the potential for them to excel or “climb the ladder to success” in their sport. The athlete who complies thrives.
For the athletes wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, the intense stare reflects the absurdity of being told to shut up and play. The athlete has the complex choice of raising one fist (in protest) or raising both fists (in victory). For the fans who are not affected by or disagree with the views of athletes, the sticker across the athlete’s mouth, in their opinion, should become an essential part of the uniform.
I want this illustration to beg the questions: Should you keep quiet and find contempt for living one’s dream? Or should you use your dream as a platform to speak for those whose voices go unheard at the expense of sacrificing one’s dream?
I asked myself about the political role of the black body within a racist, consumerist paradigm and how that plays out in sports. For this image I thought about how athletes may work through these very same questions through sports. From Muhammad Ali’s name change to the Black Power fists of the 1968 Olympic Games, to Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee — we are given expressions, symbolic abstractions, symbols that challenge us to think. I think this is the most radical act: to be challenged to think, to ask questions. Explaining artwork is a trap.
Formally, the work is a dialogue with the works of Aaron Douglas and Tadanori Yokoo and the movements to which they belong.
Tiffany B. Chanel
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. In the face of explicit and implicit racism, everyday people rise selflessly to address social injustice. Among these people are African-American athletes, such as the ones in my painting, who use their public platform and their First Amendment right to solidify their purpose as change agents. Their primary goal is to rewrite the narrative of oppressed people and afford them a pathway to upward mobility.
Some may say we have come really far, but have we really? What would you say?
There are people running around in football uniforms on my television, which leads me to believe that the NFL is apparently going to return soon. My favorite part about this coverage is hearing all the on-field music they have.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 27, 2017
Football is dangerous. This isn’t news to most of us, but a recent report had some pretty damning numbers about the NFL and brain injuries that basically solidified the fact that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is just going to be a part of life in that league. Personally, I have no idea why this is so surprising to people. When you have a bunch of grown men bashing each other’s heads in at full speed, guess what? Dudes are going to be wildly concussed on a regular basis. You know who else knows that? Ravens O-lineman John Urschel. He retired Thursday at the age of 26.
Hillary Clinton is dropping a new book. It’s called What Happened, which might simultaneously be the best book title and tease I’ve ever seen in my life. This book could be about anything. Her college years! Her time as first lady of Arkansas! Her illustrious career as a senator and secretary of state! Her time in the White House! Her experience with parallel parking! Who knows! In all seriousness, if this book is about what everyone thinks it is, she’s going to make tons of cash off of it.
There was a time in my life when I liked Gilbert Arenas. But I don’t care how many buzzer-beaters he hit for my Washington Wizards, this dude is a super jerk. First, his foolish antics harassing Nick Young and his kids were just too foul for my taste, and now he’s still out here on Instagram, trying to somehow shame dark-skinned women. Who knows what Arenas’ problem is, but being a pretty dark-skinned brother himself, the self-hate is clearly very real.
Adrian Beltre is a surefire Hall of Famer. Mainly because of his on-the-field play, but he’s also No. 1 in my heart because of his attitude toward the game. In case you don’t know, he’s the guy who is not here for anyone touching his head, which is problematic when you hit so many homers. On Wednesday, however, he managed to get tossed from a game while in the on-deck circle, which is just plain awesome. MLB umpires are some of the biggest “look at me” officials in sports, and this was no different.
Coffee Break: There are some headlines that are terrifying in concept and some that are scary in practice. Then, there are others that make you go check to see if your doors are locked because the situation presented is so terrifying. “Police: One-armed, machete-wielding clown arrested” is definitely in the latter category.
Snack Time: It may not mean much to you, but 12ozProphet is back, which is tremendous news for anyone interested in the street art or graffiti scene.
Dessert: I’ve stated my love for Cardi B a million times. And her latest is another banger.