In August, at the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp, offensive lineman John Urschel suffered a concussion — sparking one of the most interesting stories in the ongoing debate over brain injuries in the NFL. While every player has plenty to lose from head trauma, Urschel is unique: He’s the only one who stands to ruin his sideline career as an internationally recognized mathematician. Last year, after helping the Ravens to the playoffs, he published a paper, “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians,” in an academic journal.
“It’s very rare for your thesis to be publishable,” says Penn State math professor Ludmil Zikatanov. “The journal would be a very nice place to publish when you’re faculty — let alone a student.”
Urschel’s math prowess has made him a star — he tweets as @MathMeetsFball — while stirring controversy: Why would a math genius risk his talent in favor of the game? In an essay for The Players’ Tribune, Urschel wrote, “Objectively, I shouldn’t.” He claims he isn’t playing for money — he says he lives on less than $25,000 a year — or status. The allure is primal. “I love hitting people,” he wrote. “This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to.” As a result, he still plans to play this season — underscoring the murkiness of the debate on head trauma. Even for players who now recognize the game’s risks, the highs of being a pro football player are hard to replace.
“I’ve fallen in love with the sport,” Urschel says. “Right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me.”