Pro football and a math PhD: Juggling two worlds

MIT students tend to have a lot on their plates — they might be juggling a varsity sport, a few clubs, and an academic workload. But John Urschel has reached a different height — after finishing his second season in the NFL this month, he’s now working on a PhD in mathematics at MIT.

Urschel graduated with a master’s in mathematics from Penn State in 2013, and he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2014. An offensive lineman, his job is to guard the quarterback from being sacked, and he often goes toe-to-toe with the biggest guys in the pro league. Although he loves the physicality of the sport, which is what keeps him coming back for more, football’s not a career for him — Urschel also wants to be respected as a mathematician.

The Tech caught up with Urschel at his desk in the newly-renovated Building 2, and got his thoughts on studying math at MIT this offseason.

The Tech: Why did you decide to come to MIT? Why Cambridge?

Urschel: MIT is really awesome … it seemed like a good fit. I do love Cambridge — my dad, when I was a kid, he worked at Beth Israel Hospital. I always thought Boston was a great place, and he showed me around MIT, showed me around Harvard.

I’ve always had great memories from when I was a kid, and I looked at a lot of the professors here, and a lot of them do things I really like, so I thought it was a good fit.

The Tech: What are your research interests? Do you consider yourself more of an applied or pure math person?

Urschel: Most people put me more in the applied, and … I don’t really separate the two, I have interests in both.

I’ve done research in multigrid methods — so, like, numerical PDEs. I’ve done research in spectral graph theory. One of my first papers was in classical mechanics — celestial mechanics — and I’m currently doing some stuff related to convex polytopes.

Machine learning is more my applied side — but there are also very theoretical aspects to this, like proving worst-case complexity bounds … Some of the newer things I’m doing on convex polytopes are more the theoretical side.

The Tech: Have you ever felt a stigma associated with you as a mathematician or a football player?

Urschel: I feel like, sometimes, the concept of math genius in mainstream sports is overblown, overdone. So, actual math people get a little hardened to this.

Mainstream media deems someone a math genius just because they did this or did that. I’d like getting a fair shot at things, like don’t judge me based on these articles or what people are saying about me — judge me by meeting me, talking to me, reading my work.

The Tech: And on the other side?

Urschel: If you can play ball, you can play ball. That’s it.

The Tech: How are you able to juggle a professional sport and a career in mathematics?

Urschel: I love all the stuff I do. Because I love the things I do, I like doing them all day, and somehow I find time to do math, do football, play some chess sometimes, and sleep. So, lots of hours in the day.

The Tech: Chess?

Urschel: I’m a big chess fan, but not good by good people standards … I’ve done one tournament, I’ve got a rating of 1600.

The Tech: How do you compare the competitiveness of the NFL to the competitiveness of math?

Urschel: My competitiveness in both is a unified competitiveness. Just as I am competitive on the football field, I want to win, I want to beat the person next to me … It’s the same thing in math. I’m very competitive, I want to be successful, but now, instead of trying to beat up defensive lineman, I’m trying to beat up math problems. This is competitive ‘me’ against the unknown — against things I’m trying to solve. These are the things that are in the way.

The Tech: What are your views on contributing to the football world after your playing career is over, perhaps coaching down the road?

Urschel: I want people to look back at me as a football player and say ‘he was a tough player, he played the game right.’ In terms of math, I want them to say he proved good results, he helped push math forward at least some tiny bit.

No coaching, though. I’ve seen what it’s like … the amount of time you put in, the amount of sacrifice. When I’m married, when I have kids, I intend to be a family man, be around, watch my kids grow up. It’s very tough as a coach.

Walt Crosby about 2 years ago

I had no idea he was at MIT this year. Very impressive.

Janet L about 2 years ago

Welcome to the 'Tute! Pretty awesome to do an interview with the Tech even as he's adjusting to being here... Hopefully he gets to take advantage of the community at MIT in between his classes, research, and football :-)