Imagine it's the first day of school. You're sitting in a classroom, your new math teacher walks in, and he's built like a tank: 6'3", 300-ish pounds, shaved head. He looks ready to crush a guy on the gridiron, not crunch numbers. Clearly this guy's in the wrong place, right?
That was Laura San Roman's experience a few years ago at Penn State. A math and computer science double major, she was waiting for the start of her Integral Vector Calculus class when Nittany Lions guard John Urschel took his place at the front of the room.
"I was like, What?! No way a football player could also be a math teacher," San Roman says. "But then someone asked him about football, and he said, 'I'm not a football player here. I'm your math teacher. That's what I do. I'm a mathematician, and I like to play football, but don't talk to me about that.'"
When he puts it that way, Urschel makes it sound as if his dual life is no big deal. But he's a rare breed, someone so good at athletics and academics that he succeeds at the highest levels of both.
At Penn State, Urschel earned his math degree (early) with a 4.0 GPA. Then he completed his master's in math, also with a 4.0. All while teaching at the school and playing football at a top Division I program.
After leaving Happy Valley, he was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft. But he didn't give up math. He still conducts research, works on seemingly unsolvable problems, and spreads the gospel of mathematics. Online, he tweets as @MathMeetsFball, where he shares #mathjokes; offline, he inspires kids to give math a shot.
"They think I'm like a unicorn," says Urschel. "That's the easiest way to put it."
Math always came easy to Urschel. Growing up in Canada and upstate New York, he loved puzzles, problems, and tasks that required him to think. He also discovered he loved playing football when he hit the field for the first time in high school. He was a standout defensive tackle at Canisius High in Buffalo, recording 77 tackles and 4½ sacks as a senior. That earned him all-state honors and a football scholarship to Penn State.
Football, however, didn't come quite as naturally as math. "I think it has always been the bigger challenge for him," says Todd Kulka, assistant director of Penn State's academic support center for athletes. He worked with Urschel on a daily basis and saw the natural academic devote himself to constantly improving as an athlete. "He was kind of a late bloomer when it came to football," Kulka says.
Urschel's unrelenting drive paid dividends — on the field and off. He twice earned first-team All--Big Ten honors and was an Associated Press third-team All-America and a three-time Academic All--Big Ten honoree. As a senior, he won the William V. Campbell Trophy as the college football player with the best combination of athletic performance, academic achievement, and community service.
As a pro, Urschel only made three starts for the Ravens in 2014, yet he made a big enough impact in the postseason filling in for injured teammates that he's likely to challenge for a starting job in training camp. In his math life, he lectures (he was at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University in May) and publishes research papers in academic journals.
In a label-obsessed culture, however, Urschel finds himself having to remind people that he takes both football and math very seriously.
"One thing I feel may get lost sometimes is that I'm not just a pro football player who's doing some math," he says. "I'm a serious, young, budding mathematician who works with established people, who comes up with good research and good results. By math standards alone, I like to think I'm doing pretty well for myself."
The tricky part for Urschel now is finding a balance between his two careers. "I think he has a football life and a math life, and he likes to keep those separate," San Roman says. (She still works with Urschel as a research assistant.)
Those two lives, though, are inseparable. And that's what makes Urschel unique. By excelling at both, he obliterates two stereotypes — dumb jock and weak nerd — and acts as a role model for those who want to create their own paths.
"I think I serve as an example that you can't just put people into certain categories and that you're allowed to be more than just one thing," Urschel says. "You're allowed to be more than just the jock. You'll allowed to be more than just the science nerd."
Check out this Q&A with John Urschel about why YOU should learn math!
Photos: Steve Boyle for Sports Illustrated (at chalkboard), Damian Strohmeyer/AP (action)