The unconventional story of John Urschel, an NFL player turned MIT math professor

BY Preta Peace Namasaba October 18, 2023 9:09 AM EDT
John Urschel. Photo credit: Institute for Advanced Study

John Urschel recently joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Science as an assistant professor of mathematics. An exceptional mathematician, he is a former Baltimore Ravens player in the NFL. From the sports field to the lecture room, Urschel’s trajectory has been incredible.

The son of a surgeon and an attorney, Urschel was born in Canada and raised in New York. From an early age, he was introduced to the disparate realms of mathematics and football. An active child, his mother occupied him with puzzle workbooks and games of reasoning and calculation like Monopoly. On the other hand, Urschel was motivated to play football at 5 years old by seeing a picture of his father in full pads, as a linebacker for the University of Alberta.

When I was growing up, one of the most important things to my mother was that whatever I wanted to do, whatever I wanted to be, whatever I really desired, she really wanted to make sure that the only thing that could ever, ever hold me back would be a lack of talent, whatever talent means, a lack of work ethic, or just plain bad luck. She really was very adamant that she never wanted it to be because of the household I was born into, or a lack of resources.

John Urschel in EducationWeek

A fervent competitor, Urschel earned a full-ride scholarship to Penn State University. While playing college football, he pursued a bachelor’s and later a master’s degree in mathematics. He was Captain of the team, was featured twice on the First-Team All-Big Ten guard, maintained a 4.0 GPA and was a First-Team Academic All-America honoree in 2012 and 2013. During his master’s, Urschel taught vector calculus, trigonometry and analytic geometry, and introduction to econometrics at the university. He was awarded the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy.

In the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Urschel was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens as the 175th pick. He spent his whole professional football career playing as a guard for the Ravens in 40 games, starting 13 of them over 2 years. During the 2016 NFL offseason, Urschel embarked on his pursuit of a PhD in applied mathematics at MIT.

While practicing with his teammates in 2015, Urschel suffered a concussion and was unable to visualise theorems and patterns. He ultimately regained his full mental capabilities and was soon back on the field. However, an article showcasing the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in deceased NFL players had Urschel reconsidering his career options. Already pursuing his PhD, he announced his retirement from football on 27th July 2017.

In 2021, John Urschel completed his PhD in math and returned to MIT as an assistant professor of mathematics two years later. He was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. As a mathematician, his research focuses on matrix analysis and computations, with an emphasis on theoretical results and provable guarantees for practical problems.

I love teaching. I’m fighting against the idea of blindly applying formulas you just learned, and instead teaching students to use their brains. I’m a visible mathematician. I have a responsibility to try to help popularize math, and remove some of its stigma.

John Urschel in MIT

Beyond football and mathematics, Urschel is an avid chess player. Alongside his wife, he co-authored his autobiography, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football.