From The Gridiron To Multigrid Algorithms In 'Mind And Matter'

May 18, 2019
Originally published on May 18, 2019 3:12 pm

Here's a puzzle: Do the qualities that allow a man to block 300lb bodies every day have anything to do with the qualities that allow the same person to solve three-body problems late into the night? Stumped? John Urschel can solve that puzzle for you.

Urschel is a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in mathematics from Penn State, and is currently pursuing a doctorate at MIT. And now he has written a memoir, Mind and Matter, about how his love of football and his love of math fit together. "When I was very little, I loved puzzles," he says. "I loved solving problems. And that's math, and I was fascinated with that sort of thing. And in high school, I started playing football and I fell in love with it. And then when I got to college and I started taking college math courses, then I really fell in love with math again, and that's when I really discovered what mathematics is, and that I would be a mathematician."


Interview Highlights

On why he decided to play pro football despite the risks

First of all, this wasn't really a plan of mine. I have to say, when I was a kid, I loved watching college football, you know, football in the Big 10. [University of Michigan offensive tackle] Jake Long was my hero, and I wanted to be a Big 10 offensive lineman. And here I am, I'm a senior at Penn State, I am a Big 10 offensive lineman, and I'm living my dream. And I thought, okay, pro football seems available to me, people are talking about it, they have me on projection draft lists, and I said, you know what? Math can wait a little bit, and I'm going to go play football at the highest level, because I can come back to math later, but I can't come back to try professional football.

On the possibility of brain injury

It was something that I had thought about at some point, and I recognized that there are those risks, and I was aware of them, but I was already aware of them, and I had already made my decision.

On getting a concussion in practice and being briefly unable to do complex math

When I had the concussion, as crazy as it seems, I was really frustrated, more than anything, that's the right adjective, in that I love football, I love math, and I couldn't do either of those things at that moment. And it really bothered me. But once I got better, and I was back to doing football and doing math, I thought, okay, if this happens again, I really need to think and reevaluate, but I like where I am right now, and I want to keep playing football and keep doing math, and I'm going to just keep doing both of those things and, I'm forget about this ... and I did.

On what factored into his decision to retire

Things about mathematics, you know, looking at my career going forward, sort of thinking about — at that time, I was going to become a father, and so this is something I started thinking about, spending time with my daughter, being able to walk my daughter down the aisle. Being able to, when I'm 60 and 70, being able to run around, have my knees be okay, my shoulders okay, my back okay. Of course, you think about your head as well, but it's a very holistic thing. The NFL can really do a number on your body, and a lot of people are focusing on people's heads, but it's sort of all over. And I'm blessed to have played three years in the NFL, and by NFL player standards, retired completely healthy. Not by normal people standards, but by NFL standards, I am as close to completely healthy as you can get.

I recognize that because I'm a mathematician at MIT and I play professional football, I'm in the spotlight. And I have a responsibility to use this platform to show people the beauty of mathematics. - John Urschel

On being an African American in math

I recognize that because I'm a mathematician at MIT and I play professional football, I'm in the spotlight. And I have a responsibility to use this platform to show people the beauty of mathematics. To show people playing in the NFL, this isn't your way out. You can do something mathematics. You can do something in STEM, even if you don't necessarily look like what the majority of people in that field look like.

And I have to say, okay, if you look at the field of mathematics, if you look at elite American mathematicians, there's almost no African Americans. There aren't many of us in PhD programs, there's not many of us as undergrads, and what you're sort of left with is the sad realization that there are brilliant young minds being born into this country that are somehow being lost — either because of the household they're born into, or their socioeconomic situations, or sort of the social culture in their community. And this isn't just a disservice to them, this is a disservice to us as a country.

This story was edited for radio by Elizabeth Baker and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's a puzzle for you. Do the qualities that allow a man to block 300-pound bodies every day have anything to do with the qualities that allow the same person to solve three-body problems late into the night? Stumped? John Urschel can solve that problem for you. John Urschel is a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in mathematics from Penn State and is currently pursuing a doctorate at MIT. Now he's written a memoir about how his love of football and his love of math come together. It's called "Mind And Matter: A Life In Math And Football." And he's with us now from WBUR in Boston.

John Urschel, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN URSCHEL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you to tell the story of which came first - the love of math or the love of football? Or do they always kind of coexist?

URSCHEL: They coexist and they intertwine. I would say when I was very little, I loved puzzles. I loved solving problems. And that's math, and I was fascinated with this sort of thing. And in high school, I started playing football, and I fell in love with it. And then when I got to college and I started taking college math courses, then I really fell in love with math again. And that's when I really discovered what mathematics is and that I would be a mathematician.

MARTIN: So math started early, with the puzzles. In fact, you write about the fact that your mom kind of tricked you. She was constantly giving you workbooks to work on while she was also continuing her education as a lawyer so she could practice law. Did you know she was trying to teach you math?

URSCHEL: Yes. Yes. There was no trick involved. I very much enjoyed doing these things. I was very excited about them. I have to say these were some of my fondest memories from when I was very, very little. So no, she was giving me what I wanted.

MARTIN: So tell me about football, then. You started in high school, which for some kids is late. I mean, some kids in some parts of the country are - they're in pads at 6 years old, 6, 7, 8 years old. So why football?

URSCHEL: Why football? My father played college football at the University of Alberta. I really idolized my father when I was younger, and I always want to be just like him. And, well, he played football, so I wanted to play football. I couldn't play football when I was quite young because they had a weight limit, and I was quite overweight when I was very little. And I'm really thankful that I didn't play tackle football when I was younger because I think starting sort of in high school, when I started, is the perfect time.

MARTIN: One of the things that I found fascinating about the book is how you - particularly when it became clear that you could play football at an elite level, then you had to make a decision - are you going to try to go pro or not? And this is where I think many people would have questions.

URSCHEL: Yes.

MARTIN: And the question they would have is everybody knows that football has a high risk of brain injury. It has a high risk of injury period. I mean, what is it - I think I've heard it said that the probability of injury in the NFL is 100%, right?

URSCHEL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And the possibility of brain injury is quite high. So here you are. You're gifted at math. How do you decide that you are going to go play professional football?

URSCHEL: First of all, I - this wasn't really a plan of mine. I was - I have to say, when I was a kid, I loved watching college football - you know, football in the Big Ten. Like, Jake Long was my hero, and I want to be a Big Ten offensive lineman. And here I am. You know, I'm a senior at Penn State. I am a Big Ten offensive lineman, and I'm living my dream. And - yeah. And I thought, OK. Pro football seems available to me. People are talking to me about it. They have me on projection draft lists. And I say, you know what? Math can wait a little bit, and I'm going to go play football at the highest level because I can come back to math later, but I can't come back to try professional football.

MARTIN: Did you consider the possibility of a serious brain injury?

URSCHEL: No.

MARTIN: You did not.

URSCHEL: No. No.

MARTIN: That seems strange given that you're - you were very aware of probability, right? So...

URSCHEL: Yes.

MARTIN: So...

URSCHEL: Yes.

MARTIN: What happened? You just chose not to think about it?

URSCHEL: You know, it was something that I had thought about at some point. And I recognized that there are those risks, and I was aware of them. But I was already aware of them, and I had already made my decision.

MARTIN: So you did get a concussion. In 2015, you were at training camp, and you were in full-pads practice. And you, as they say, got your bell rung...

URSCHEL: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...And suffered a concussion. And then it was serious. I mean, there were - you didn't - you couldn't read. You couldn't do math. I had to basically lie around for a while and - I don't know.

URSCHEL: Yeah. I mean (laughter) saying I couldn't read - I mean, this is a little strong. I was capable of reading.

MARTIN: OK.

URSCHEL: I was not capable of, let's say, like reading high-level math. But, you know, you put "Cat In The Hat" in front of me, I can...

MARTIN: OK.

URSCHEL: I can read this, you know?

MARTIN: OK. But that's not your job. Your job wasn't - your future was not reading "Cat In The Hat." Your future was...

URSCHEL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Doing complex math problems. So you couldn't do that for a while.

URSCHEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: So the question then becomes, was it worth it? I mean, you recovered, but did that ever cause you to question?

URSCHEL: The concussion.

MARTIN: Yeah.

URSCHEL: Surprisingly not. When I had the concussion, as crazy as it seems, I was really frustrated more than anything. That's the right adjective in that, you know, I love football. I love math. And I couldn't do either of those things at that moment, and it really bothered me. But once I got better, and I was back to sort of doing football and doing math, I thought, OK. You know, if this happens again, I really need to sort of think and re-evaluate. But I like where I am right now, and I want to keep playing football and keep doing math. And I'm going to just keep doing both these things, and I'm going to forget about this.

MARTIN: So...

URSCHEL: And I did.

MARTIN: You did. So what made you finally decide to hang up your pads? It wasn't the concussion. What was it?

URSCHEL: The things that sort of went into my decision-making was things about mathematics, looking at my career going forward, sort of thinking about - at that time, I was going to become a father. And so this is something I started thinking about - about, you know, spending time with my daughter, being able to, you know, walk my daughter down the aisle, being able to sort of - when I'm 60 and 70, be able to run around, have my - you know, my knees be OK, my shoulders OK, my back OK. I mean, you know, of course you think about your head as well.

But, you know, it's a very holistic thing. The NFL can really do a number on your body. And, you know, a lot of people are focusing on sort of people's heads. But it's sort of all over, and I'm blessed to have played three years in the NFL and, by NFL player standards, retire completely healthy. Not by normal people standards...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

URSCHEL: ...But by NFL standards, I am as close to a completely healthy as you can get.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I found your - this chapter in your decision-making interesting is that you also talked about the fact of being an African American in math.

URSCHEL: Yes.

MARTIN: And there is this question of whether - are African Americans too invested in sports in this country as an avenue for achievement and accomplishment? I wonder, did that factor into it at all? That yes, it's true that very few people make it to the NFL, but even fewer make it into elite levels in math? And I just wondered if that was part of the thought for you - is being a role model in a different area?

URSCHEL: Yes. I recognize that because I'm a mathematician at MIT, and I played professional football, I'm in the spotlight. And I have a responsibility to sort of use this platform to show people the beauty of mathematics, to show people playing in the NFL this isn't your way out. You can do something in mathematics. You can do something in STEM even if you don't necessarily look like what the majority of people in that field look like. And I have to say, OK. If you look at sort of the field of mathematics, if you look at elite American mathematicians, there's almost no African American There's not many of us in Ph.D. programs. There's not many of us as undergrads.

And what you're sort of left with is this sad realization that there are brilliant young minds being born into this country that somehow are being lost - either because of the household they're born into or, you know, their socioeconomic situations or sort of the social culture in their community. And this isn't just a disservice to them. This is a disservice to us as a country.

MARTIN: Do you still watch football?

URSCHEL: Yes. Yes. I watch college football. I don't watch NFL, but...

MARTIN: Why? How come? That's interesting. How come?

URSCHEL: I stopped watching NFL football, actually, the moment I got into the NFL. It just - it felt like work. College football - I love watching Penn State football. I mean, I'm a Penn Stater till I die. And then I also love watching Western Illinois football, which is the team that my best friend in the world coaches for. He's the offensive coordinator there. So I follow them extremely closely.

MARTIN: OK. Well, that's John Urschel. His memoir is "Mind And Matter: A Life In Math And Football," which he has written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. And he was kind enough to join us from WBUR in Boston. Something tells me you won't have any difficulty getting a position someplace, so we'll - keep us posted on that, professor...

URSCHEL: Will do.

MARTIN: ...Soon-to-be professor Urschel.

John Urschel, thanks so much for talking to us.

URSCHEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.