The NFL lineman who cracks helmets and math problems

Ever come home from an exhausting day of classes and extracurricular activities and practices and wonder how in the world you’re going to finish homework without passing out on your textbook?

Baltimore Ravens’ John Urschel was the guy who asked for more math and more football practice.

Let’s rewind: before he entered the league as a 2014 fifth-round draft pick, and even before he became captain of the Penn State Nittany Lions squad… Urschel was just a high school student-athlete shopping around for prospective colleges.

Stanford? Maybe. Princeton? Possibly.


His size, skills and strong math chops got him recruited to both these fine institutions, where he could have played football competitively while earning an elite education. When he chose to attend Penn State, people thought he was crazy. He told Wall Street Journal:

“… my principal told me I was a fool for picking Penn State…because he said I’m never going to play pro football, but I ended up getting the best of both worlds.”

Though he occasionally dabbled in statistics talk via online articles, he mainly focused on protecting Ryan Mallett and Matt Schaub in the pocket. This year, he dipped back into the math world, enrolling in a math program at MIT.  He is currently the only NFL player who is also enrolled in a Ph.D. program.

(Note: none of the online tutors at Yup have ever been, nor probably ever will be, professional football players.)

Athletics and math-letics isn’t new to Urschel, however. At Penn State, he juggled a physically-demanding D-1 football regimen with an equally-demanding role as an undergraduate teacher and tutor. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for him to have a copy of the playbook or Chaos: An Introduction to Dynamical Systems in hand.  

In a time when football seems to cause more brain injuries than brain conditioning, Urschel shows that there is no single image of a math guru; we don’t have to fit into a jock/nerd stereotype to excel in either category. In fact, we want to help as many students as possible break out of the mentality that they can’t understand a subject or a problem because of they “way they are”.

“I’d like to be known as a football player by football people, a mathematician by math people,” Urschel said. “Anyone else? I want to be known for both.”

When you see Urschel playing on Sunday nights, just know that there are more calculations floating around in his head than most humans could fathom on a weekend.

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