To simply say that John Urschel is “not your typical NFL player” would be selling him short: Urschel is not your typical mathematician, either.
A two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman at Penn State, the 300-pound Urschel was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft as a guard, but he’s also working on becoming a center. That would be somewhat fitting – it was only two years earlier that the Ravens’ center was Matt Birk, a Harvard-educated Pro Bowler who might have been the smartest player in the league. Now Urschel is hoping to play the same position, on the same team. And carry the same torch.
He taught a Calculus course at Penn State, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, won the William V. Campbell award in 2013 (also known as the “Academic Heisman”) and this year published a piece in the Journal of Computational Mathematics: A breezy read titled “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians.”
Forget about saying that five times fast, most people can barely say it one time slow. But Urschel is anything but slow, as we found out during a recent chat with the biggest brain in the NFL. Don’t worry, none of this will be on the midterm.
Your passion for math started much earlier than your passion for football, right?
This is correct. I didn’t start playing football until high school. It came along a little later in life; math is something I’ve done since I can remember. I’m very passionate about math – it’s something I’ve been in love with for a very, very long time.
My mother raised me and she would push me towards what I was good at. If she saw that I had a propensity for reading and writing, maybe she would have pushed me towards English. When I was a kid she noticed that I was extremely gifted in math, solving puzzles and pattern recognition, so that’s what she pushed me towards. She used to tell me stories that when I was a little kid, she would go out and buy me these puzzle-type toys, where you have the blocks and you have to put them in the right holes and things like that. She’d get me one of them, take it home, get it out of the box and I’d finish it in about three seconds. I’d be done with it and I’d never touch it again!
How did you get started playing football?
The way I started playing football was that my dad played football at the University of Alberta. He was a great linebacker there, had an opportunity to play in the CFL, ended up going to medical school instead. I just grew up seeing pictures of him playing football and hearing about the stories and I realized that, actually, this is something I wanted to do. Once I started playing I fell in love with the sport.
We often hear that the NCAA’s so-called “student-athletes” struggle, in part because so much of their time is focused on sports. How did you balance earning a master’s degree with playing for one of the premier college football programs?
I didn’t find it difficult, mainly because I didn’t really have any time-management skills; I spent all my time doing either math or football because those were my two loves. That’s all I wanted to do all day, every day. I woke up excited to go lift, excited to go to practice, excited to get into class and learn, excited to do math research. It’s what I wake up and can’t wait to do.
You previously examined the distribution of academic majors amongst players at major college football programs – Auburn and Stanford, specifically – as they related to upperclassmen at the same schools. Did your findings surprise you?
I can tell you how it went: not the way I thought it would! This happens a lot, less in math but more in science; you do an experiment and you expect a result and sometimes you don’t get that result. But science or math, whatever you get, it’s what you publish. I expected the result I got out of Auburn [nearly two-thirds of all players majored in Liberal Arts], but the reason I chose Stanford is that I thought I could contrast the two. I could say, “Hey some college football programs really just funnel students into the easy majors, but some really have a distribution similar to the general university.” I thought Stanford was going to be that for me, and frankly it was not. It turns out that neither had a distribution that represents the general university at all.
I wrote that article and I received all of this hate mail and it’s all from Stanford. And it’s the strangest type of hate mail that I have ever received in my life, because it’s not people telling me that I suck or cursing at me. The emails start along the lines of “Dear Mr. Urschel, did you know blah-blah-blah-blah about Stanford?” and I love Stanford, it’s a great university, I contemplated going there for my undergrad and my master’s and I might go there for my Ph.D. but I just found it very, very interesting because it’s the strangest type of hate mail I’ve ever received. I didn’t receive a single piece of hate mail from Auburn.
You scored a 43 out of 50 on the Wonderlic last year, the highest of anyone in your draft class. Were you still disappointed?
I was obviously very disappointed in myself about the 43! And I’m not going to blame it on the fact that this was the first year that they changed it to a new system, but what I will tell you is man I was prepared for the old system and I was primed to, if not get a 50, get close to it. That was a goal of mine.
Is the Wonderlic a good indicator of intelligence and future football success?
I think the old Wonderlic was not as good [as the new test] because some of the questions really depended on your upbringing and your familiarity with certain phrases or sayings, and I think it had some socioeconomic implications. And I think the current Wonderlic is much, much better and does not have any hint of that. Although I wish they would have done it the year after me! I think the Wonderlic, like any intelligence exam, is a very good measure around the average and the median, but once you start getting to the extremes – the extreme highs and extreme lows – I think it loses its accuracy very quickly. And that goes for any type of exam.
What do your teammates think about your interest in math?
They all embrace it. They’ll joke with me sometimes, they like to have a good time with me about it, but they very much embrace the math and some of them think it’s pretty cool. The one thing they will get on me about is my lifestyle. The source of a lot of these conversations is my car. I drive a used Nissan Versa hatchback and they’ll say, “Hey you should probably get a nicer car. We know you got this nice signing bonus, we know what your paychecks are, why are you driving this tiny car?” And even beyond the fact of “this thing is dirt cheap” is “it’s not safe.” They keep telling me it’s not safe, that a big truck is just gonna eat my little thing up.
Will you bow to the pressure at some point?
No, I love my car. This little guy is my baby. I’m gonna be driving this thing for like the next five years.
There are seemingly stats for every position in the NFL; do you think there should be similar numbers for offensive linemen?
All these stats, especially QBR, they’re just numbers. I think what you have to look more closely at is the performance itself. I think there’s never going to be a way to judge [an offensive lineman’s performance] fully. People need to realize that, not just in football but in anything, when you quantify these things that you know, it’s not fundamental. There’s a lot of moving parts, you’re only going to be able to capture so much of it. And that’s the way it is in applied math. What you do when you get these numbers of these players, these performances, you’re essentially doing a dimensionality reduction, and of course you’re going to lose things. I think for offensive-line play, you might be able to quantify better once player tracking really takes off. I think the field of football analytics as a whole should really take off once player tracking really becomes standard in the NFL.
When you wrote about the retirement of Chris Borland, you said you envied his ability to walk away from the game because you rely on football to get your aggression out. What exactly is that aggression and where do you think it comes from?
I hate to say this. I think it’s hardwired in my DNA, man. It’s just one of those things. People can talk and say that it’s natural for us to be docile all the time, but we’re descendants of cavemen who went out and hunted and killed their prey. I feel like this aggression was an inherent trait for survival back in the day, and I think this is something that a lot of us carry – some to a degree more than others. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with that as long as you give it the correct outlets and you control it and you keep it under control when you encounter situations that might invoke that part of you. That’s something I haven’t ever had a problem with, especially because I’ve been blessed to be able to play this game and let out my aggression and just run around and just kind of get it out.
When will you stop?
I’m gonna play until no team will have me anymore.
And then what? A career in coaching or a career in math?
I think I’ll go into math and get my Ph.D. in it, preferably at somewhere like a Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech. Something like that.