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Mathlete

John Urschel left professional football to become a mathematician

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MAKING IT HAPPEN John Urschel pursued dual dreams of pro football and math research.

Growing up, John Urschel dreamed of playing pro football. Off the field, only one thing captivated him as much as his favorite sport: solving math problems. After high school, Urschel was awarded a football scholarship to Pennsylvania State University. In college, he realized he wanted to be an elite athlete and a mathematician. 

Both of Urschel’s dreams ended up coming true. After earning a master’s degree in math, he was drafted to play in the National Football League (NFL) as an offensive guard for the Baltimore Ravens. But after three seasons, at age 26, he retired from the sport. He wanted to devote himself to math full-time. He’s now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working on his Ph.D.—the highest academic degree attainable. 

Urschel plans to become a professor so he can teach the next generation how to use math to think critically about issues that affect their daily lives. He spoke with Science World about his journey to become a mathematician—and what football taught him about tackling tough problems. 

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ON THE FIELD: Urschel played 40 games over three seasons with the Ravens. 

As a kid, did you ever think of becoming a  mathematician? 

I’d never even heard the word mathematician! But I loved puzzles and problem solving. 

Every Friday night, my mother and I would play games like Connect Four, checkers, and Monopoly. I realized that quantitative reasoning, or mathematical thinking, could help me play better. I also loved going through math workbooks and trying to solve problems without reading the instructions. 

At the time, I didn’t know what I could do with those skills. Then in college, I started doing research with one of my math professors. I liked thinking about why certain techniques in math work, instead of just how. That’s when I realized I wanted to become a mathematician. 

What made you decide to leave the NFL and return to math? 

It was something I struggled with. When I was drafted into the NFL, I decided to do that first and get my Ph.D. later. But I never stopped loving—or doing— math. When I was with the Ravens, I’d play football and then go home and read math books. But I still felt I wasn’t doing as much math as I could. That motivated me to apply for my Ph.D. I began working on it during my final year with the NFL, traveling between Baltimore and MIT in Boston. Eventually, I realized that math was more important to me than football. 

My mental and physical health also factored into my decision. I was lucky during my football career. I had hardly any injuries or concussions—brain injuries caused by blows to the head. Part of my choice to retire from football was to keep it that way. 

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TEACHING MATH: Urschel teaches a math lesson at a Baltimore high school. 

What mathematical problems are you currently researching? 

A lot of my work focuses on computational problems—ones that computers might be able to solve. For example, we might want a computer to organize a giant data set, a collection of related pieces of information. To do this, software engineers create algorithms—sets of rules for computers to follow. I’m figuring out the mathematical theory behind computational problems, so we can figure out whether our algorithms provide the best solutions. 

Do you miss football? 

No, but it taught me a lot. As a football player, you need resilience. There are always going to be times when you get beaten or have a bad play. You need the inner strength to say, “I’m going to get back up and do better next time.” Today, if I try to solve a math problem and it doesn’t work, I keep at it, instead of getting discouraged and giving up. 

What do you like most about working toward your Ph.D.? 

Getting a Ph.D. trains you to solve interesting, tough problems that no one has ever solved. I also like that I get to choose what I think about. Plus, I can work from anywhere—all I need is a piece of paper and my mind. 

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