STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – In a matter of months, former Penn State standout John Urschel went from playing in raucous NFL stadiums in front of thousands of fans to starting his day by hanging out with his 3-month-old daughter before making a 10-minute walk to his office at MIT.
Once there, Urschel tunes out whatever is going on around him and does what he’s always wanted to do.
“I sit and I think,” said Urschel, a doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at MIT. “No distractions. I just think. Maybe I write some stuff down or I’ll go on the blackboard. I just think. … Then I go home, eat dinner and maybe I’ll sit on the couch and I’ll think some more. … I spend just about all of my time every day just thinking — and I love it. I absolutely love it! I’ve never been happier in my life.”
There’s, of course, plenty of reading and meetings with his Ph.D. adviser mixed in as Urschel, the 2013 winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy — known as the academic Heisman — tries to solve complex problems that long have captivated him. There also are the occasional speaking engagements like the ones this week where Urschel was back on Penn State’s campus Thursday and Friday delivering a keynote address at a sports analytics conference and later serving as part of a panel surrounding concussion research.
This is the life Urschel spent so much time thinking about, even more so around this time last year as he went through the rigors of an NFL offseason while attending MIT.
“As a mathematician, you’re trying to fundamentally understand what’s going on with something, and it’s through sort of logic and through step by step, and that only comes by deep thought,” he said. “There’s no sort of cheap shortcuts.”
But there was a solution to this balancing act he juggled for years as he affectionately became known as a “mathlete.”
Urschel, an offensive lineman, retired from football last July at age 26 after three seasons in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. His decision came just one day after he reported to training camp. That just so happened to fall two days after a study was released that warned about the dangers of football and brain injuries.
However, Urschel said his decision wasn’t linked to the early retirements of former NFL players who left the sport because of concussions and the fear of CTE, a degenerative disease linked to people who have suffered multiple brain injuries. Sure, he said he thought about the potential impact long before the study was released, but ultimately he was either going to retire or play one more season before opting to fully commit himself to a career in mathematics.
“My No. 1 passion in life is mathematics, and I’ve sort of known that in my heart that eventually my No. 1 thing is math,” he said. “To be able to fully focus on it and try to do some good things in it has been amazing.”
That decision between math and football long had been the question Urschel was forced to answer, especially from talent evaluators as the Penn State scholar-athlete pursued a career in the NFL. Which one would he choose? Could he do both? Did he like one more than the other?
In a sport where the NFL has become widely known for standing for Not For Long, Urschel’s time at MIT reaffirmed that this was where he was happiest. Fighting for a roster spot was much less appealing that the thought of devoting his time to his Ph.D. The friendships formed through football, particularly in college, the on-field achievements and the financial gains were tremendous benefits, but his lifelong love of learning couldn’t and wouldn’t slow down when the season started.
“I was thinking about [NFL retirement] long before that [study] came out, and long before that came out I was deciding between it being my last season or me not playing and I really just tried to take all the time I had available to me to make the decision,” Urschel said. “It’s definitely something you need to look at, but it’s also something I believe as football players we are very aware of if you think about it. Like they were saying in there [in the panel] it’s not 99 percent [of people who play ending up with CTE] obviously, but it’s not zero percent and I don’t think it’s very close to either number, you know what I mean?”
Urschel was part of a Penn State panel on concussion research on Friday with University of Michigan’s director of the NeuroTrauma Research Laboratory. He said afterward he had two documented concussions during his playing career but the man who makes a living pursuing answers doesn’t have concerns about the future of his mind.
In fact, the timing for Urschel to leave football to continue his pursuit of higher-level mathematics made sense to him on so many levels. There were academic requirements that needed to be met so he could continue his Ph.D. study, and the more wrapped up he got in what started as an offseason of courses, the more he needed to decide. The timeshare of passions that he balanced for much of his life could conclude while he still had his health.
“No back problems, no shoulder problems, no knee problems,” Urschel said. “Obviously I’ve had some injuries, and I have some wear and tear that everyone has, but for the most part I’m nearly clean as a whistle and not everyone gets to say that, so this is ideal. I’m lucky.”
Urschel’s life has taken a 90-degree turn as he’d put it, with all of his attention now focusing on this one career path. There’s still chess, reading and family time, but being able to end his day in a similar way to how he starts it by grappling with this one math problem in particular – known as the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem – has him as excited as ever to continue toward his next career goal.
“I will think every day, which is my favorite pastime,” he said as a smile spread wide. “I’m going to try to solve some really hard problems that will help sort of like push knowledge forward and help the world in some way.”