Last year, Justify won horse racing’s Triple Crown and retired undefeated. He is a descendant of previous Triple Crown winners, including Seattle Slew, Secretariat and War Admiral. And he is a four-legged reminder of a trend that’s racing through elite pro sports: Justify, like his two-legged counterparts, is a descendant of former stars in his sport.
More and more athletes are entering the family business: sports. If current trends continue, we may see favorite son or daughter categories in The ESPYS or publications that look back on the year in sports.
In April’s NFL draft, Nick Bosa joined his brother, Joey, and father, John, as football players who were first-round draft picks. Earlier this month, Bobby Witt Sr. and Jr. became the first father-and-son duo to be picked among the first three selections in the Major League Baseball draft when Bobby Jr. was selected second overall by the Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors have led their team to its fifth consecutive NBA Finals. Both men’s fathers enjoyed long NBA careers.
Now it could be that sports scientists will discover a jump shot gene or pass rushing in the DNA of second-generation athletes. Perhaps the ability to hit major league pitching can be passed down too. Maybe there is something innate and inheritable that has led to multiple generations of Boones in baseball, the Mannings in football and the Unsers in auto racing.
But we know that Nick Bosa, Curry, baseball’s Vlad Guerrero Jr. (son of Hall of Famer Vlad Sr.) and other second-generation athletes had fathers who could show them the ropes in their chosen profession, which is to say that big-time sports, like other endeavors in our country, favor young people whose families can help them succeed and show them how.
At the same time, we see fathers — and it is mainly fathers — who seek to groom their sons or daughters for sports stardom: the Williams sisters in tennis or the Ball brothers in basketball, for example.
During the various pro drafts, we see such fathers give a special look to their drafted children, a look that should be familiar to parents who have attended their kids’ college graduations. It’s a look that says, “This is the end.” It’s a look that says, “This is the beginning.” It’s a look that says, “We did it.”
Of course, as society changes, so do our families: Would-be male sports stars such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are just two of many men inside and outside of sports who have been nurtured by strong, resourceful and resilient women, especially black women. And the NBA’s LeBron James continues to invent himself as a man, a father and a businessperson while withstanding the scrutiny and sometimes the scorn of the media. And, like legions of others outside of sports, he has done so without his biological father showing the way, a feat comparable to anything the Los Angeles Lakers forward pulls off on the basketball court.
The world of big-time sports appears so seductive and compelling that it is understandable when some fathers want a chance to see if they can endure the spotlight and not melt under its heat.
But fathers and others don’t have to resort to stunts such as catching a baseball in major league stands while holding a child (the stupid guy trick of sports fans) to get our attention. They can use sports and their ups and downs to give our children “the talk.” I’m talking about the one best delivered in a whispered but confident voice after our children lose a game. It is the one where the elders tell the children they can come back from defeat, they can withstand the end of the world and try again and again, that there can be triumph beyond numbers on the scoreboard.
Becoming good at delivering that talk might not land the elders on the sports highlight shows. But it could earn them a vote for most valuable dad, parent or guardian, at least in their households.
Happy Father’s Day.
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.
NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.
Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.
In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”
He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.
On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.
“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”
Kyler Murray’s custom Air Jordan 1 Low for tonight’s draft. The green light post is a symbol of his dreams and what he hopes to accomplish in his career. pic.twitter.com/RdnkM4nbvp
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 25, 2019
Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.
“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”
Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”
— Kyler Murray (@TheKylerMurray) April 24, 2019
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.
“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”
The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”
Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.
“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”
Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.
“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”