The epitome of the scholar-athlete, John Urschel represents everything right about college football. A team captain and a key component to one of the Big Ten’s most productive passing offenses, Urschel claimed Associated Press Third-Team All-America honors in 2013 while paving the way for three-straight 1,000-yard rushers and helping the Nittany Lions to winning seasons in all four years of his career. He garnered back-to-back First-Team Academic All-America honors in 2012 and 2013, and he earned a bachelor’s in mathematics in May 2012, a master’s in mathematics a year later and was working on a second master’s degree in math education his final year at Penn State – all while maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA. Active in the community, Urschel volunteered with Relay for Life, Special Olympics and Make-A-Wish events.
He played three seasons in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens while at the same time beginning work on a Ph.D. in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A full-time student since his NFL retirement in 2017, he is expected to complete his Ph.D. this spring. Urschel is a noted speaker, sharing his passion for math in hope of inspiring future generations. He authored a book in 2019 titled, “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” telling the story of a life balanced between two passions. Urschel also joined the board of trustees at the National Museum of Mathematics, and he is a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Follow John on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram.
You are Penn State’s first and only winner of the Campbell Trophy®. What did that recognition mean to you and to the school?
Winning the Campbell Trophy® was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received. College football is something special, and I was lucky enough to be in a place with a tradition of success both on the field and in the classroom. I don’t view the award as a singular achievement, but as a representation of the culture in the Penn State football department.
You earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree during your time at Penn State. What was the secret to balancing your academic and athletic pursuits so successfully?
I think the biggest secret is that there are no shortcuts and really no substitute for dedication and hard work. One piece of advice I do like to give is to make sure you love what you do. Football isn’t easy, and math isn’t much easier. If you don’t love it, good luck trying to find the motivation to do a few more reps or try a few more exercises.
It can be argued that a “White-Out” at Beaver Stadium is one of the toughest game-day atmospheres in all of college football. What makes those games so special and do you have a favorite memory from one of them?
There’s something special about going out on a Saturday and representing your university. White-Out games are an amazing experience where you get to the see the Penn State community come together in breathtaking fashion. Simply put, there’s nothing like it. I’ll never forget our 2013 White-Out win vs. Michigan. It was four overtimes!
You currently serve on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. How has the experience changed your perception of the rankings/polls, especially since your playing days?
Serving on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has been amazing. There’s something special about being with people who love football so much and put in countless hours to watch games, evaluate teams and make tough decisions. I’m especially happy to be a member, because I love college football so much, and even though my career focus is mathematical research, I want to stay close to the game. I’m not sure what I’ll do after my term is over, but I’ll figure that out when I get there! The biggest change in my perception is an appreciation for just how much time the CFP members spend watching every game, and a better understanding of the process. Often outside people refer to the committee as a singular body with a singular mindset. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The committee has a diverse group of members, with different backgrounds and perspectives.
Tell us more about working on your PhD at MIT. Can we call you Dr. Urschel soon and what are your plans after graduation?
Being a PhD student in the MIT math department has been a dream come true. There’s something special about being around so many different brilliant and passionate mathematicians. It’s an environment that brings out the best in me and constantly leaves me wanting to learn more. I’m graduating this year and, afterwards, I’m headed to the Institute for Advanced Study to focus on research for a year. Eventually, I plan to be a professor.
Your love of chess is well documented. How did you start playing and is the ultimate goal to be a Grandmaster?
I started playing in college when one of my good friends became interested in the game. We used to play weekly games at lunch. I wouldn’t say that I have any aspirations of becoming a grandmaster (math and parenthood keep me busy enough!), but I enjoy looking at chess when I have the time and think eventually I might become a national master.
Food or restaurant that you are embarrassed to admit you love? Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone. 🙂
I’m an offensive lineman! I love all food, and I’m certainly not embarrassed about it!
Favorite comedies (TV series or movies)?
Favorite ice cream flavor at the Penn State Creamery?
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
Campbell Trophy Q&A Background:
The William V. Campbell Trophy Presented Since 1990, which recognizes the nation’s top scholar-athlete from the college gridiron. The trophy is a member of the National College Football Awards Association, which encompasses the most prestigious awards in college football.