Penn State offensive lineman's life is proof that higher mathematics and college football can mix
October 17, 2012 8:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Penn State guard John Urschel (64) battles with Ohio defensive lineman Carl Jones (89) in the Nittany Lions' season opener.
Brandon Wade/Associated Press
Penn State guard John Urschel.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The coolest shirt, perhaps of all time, fits snugly on the muscular body of a Penn State offensive lineman. It's light blue. On the front, printed in black, the shirt features 42 humorous methods of proof.
Example: The proof by intimidation states, "Don't be stupid. Of course it's true." The shirt is a math person's idea of comedy, a way of making fun of proofs.
You at least remember the simplest version of mathematical proofs, right? A statement or theorem is presented, and then you must prove why it is true, using statements you support with reasons. Good? Let's begin.
If a college football player has enough innate ability and focuses enough, then he can graduate with a 4.0 in mathematics in three years, complete research projects generally reserved for students with far more experience, start at offensive guard, cultivate NFL ambitions, be a mother's dream and still find time to help friends, teammates and acquaintances.
Given: This story is about John Urschel. Urschel, a redshirt junior, is a mortal who, by all accounts, does not possess super powers and sleeps a reasonable six hours a night.
Prove: John Urschel = That college football player.
Statement: First-grade teachers are sometimes waaaaay wrong.
Reason: A first-grade teacher wrote Urschel's mother, Venita Parker, asking her to come to the school to talk about her son, the kid who spaced out in the middle of discussions and could never answer questions when he was called upon in the teacher's class.
She told Parker that Urschel did not "process" well. Parker read between the lines. The teacher wanted to say her son was dumb. She suggested they hold Urschel back for a year and wanted to enroll him in a "special" class.
Parker's son devoured sixth-grade level math workbooks in the evenings. To say the least, Parker did not believe he had a "processing" problem.
The teacher wanted Urschel to take a test, and Parker agreed. He graded out at genius levels for math. The school now suggested he skip a grade.
Parker was a nurse and is now a lawyer. Urschel's father, John Urschel Sr., is a retired thoracic surgeon. Their son loved to read growing up. He loved to play lacrosse, the piano and the viola. He loved to compete in math competitions as captain of his school's team, solving the problems in his head, rarely needing to write them down.
Statement: John Urschel has always been mature beyond his years.
Reason: By the eighth grade, he had eclipsed any traditional standard applied to so-called smart students. That summer, Urschel Sr. enrolled his son in a calculus class at the University of Buffalo. Urschel listened to the lectures. He did the homework.
"I killed it," he said.
College-aged classmates asked Urschel for help here and there. They didn't think much of it. Urschel looked like them already. He was nearing 6 feet and 200 pounds.
The next year, as a freshman at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y., he played football for the first time, making the junior varsity. As a sophomore, he made the varsity.
Urschel's high school friend, Kyle Thompson, remembered the first game he saw Urschel play. Urschel pancake-blocked an opponent into the turf. Then, he reached down, extended a hand and helped the kid up from the turf.
Statement: John Urschel has an insatiable competitive desire.
Reason: Don't challenge Urschel to a game of Monopoly. Seriously, just don't. His mother said he used to turn into Donald Trump, seizing Park Place and Boardwalk as quickly as he could, not wanting the game to stop until he had won and taken everyone else's money, too.
"He's a fierce competitor and hates to lose," Parker says. "Hates to lose."
Urschel may wear ironic math t-shirts, but, in Clark Kent fashion, he sheds his civilian clothes for pads and a helmet and an outlook that is 100 percent football. He might have earned the nickname "Gentle Giant" and helped opponents up from the turf, but the point is he knocks you down.
"I wish you could see him in my offensive line meetings, totally focused, taking notes, asking questions," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. "On the field he's exactly the same way."
Statement: College changed John Urschel.
Reason: It changes everyone. College offers unprecedented amounts of free time and free will. Urschel, as long as he can remember, has been driven to succeed. With the opportunity to set his schedule, he discovered an efficiency and work ethic he had not previously known.
"I didn't really think it out," he said. "It just happened. I just enjoyed the freedom and the ability to do what I wanted."
It would take until this fall before he earned a consistent starting position on the Penn State offensive line. By the fall of 2010, the mathematics department had identified Urschel as a rising star.
Professor Vadim Kaloshin, who now teaches at Maryland, gave Urschel a math book after noticing the way he had aced his tests. The book was about two inches thick, read by postgraduate students. Urschel finished it in two weeks.
Under Kaloshin's guidance, Urschel started working on a research paper on celestial mechanics, discovering how there might be some asteroids in the asteroid belt around Jupiter that could crash into Mars. Now, he is working with Xiaozhe Hu, a postdoc, on a research paper about parallel computing.
Hu speaks as highly about Urschel's math skills (particularly when it comes to constructing proofs) as he does his warm personality. Urschel engages everyone in the department, from the reputable professors like Jinchao Xu to Xu's assistant director Nick McCarthy. This summer, he and his girlfriend helped McCarthy move into her new apartment. He arrived at her residence with a smile.
"I've never seen him any other way," McCarthy said. "Buoyant. He's buoyant, but he's not cloying. He's not too much. He's a pleasure."
Statement: There's always time, always.
Reason: Winter break, 2010-11. Penn State was preparing to play Florida in the Outback Bowl. Urschel brought along books with him and worked about four hours a day on his celestial mechanics project. Devon Still, then playing for Penn State, had to remind him that he was on vacation.
"For me," Urschel said, "a break is a time to really get working."
After an average day of lifting weights, attending class, studying, attending seminar for his research paper, watching film, practicing, studying, sometimes tutoring teammates and hanging out with friends, Urschel likes to relax by playing guitar or reading. The book this 6-foot-3, 307-pound lineman recently has been perusing is Stochastic Finance for Calculus II.
He said he doesn't get tired of football, or of math. He plans on playing professionally after Penn State if he can make the NFL and then going for his doctorate afterwards, saying he would love to enroll at Stanford, MIT or Princeton.
The next two years will bring about more early wake-up calls for practice, more research, the prospect of teaching a class. There will be more of everything, and nothing could sound more welcoming to Urschel.
"The key is to enjoy what you're doing," he said. "You don't have to come in early. You want to. It's when you really love what you do."