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Mathlete John Urschel Wants You to Learn Math!

Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel is more than just a football player. He’s also a mathematician. And a very good one. While at Penn State, Urschel earned his undergraduate degree and masters — both in math, both early, both with a 4.0 GPA — while teaching at the school and playing football for the Nittany Lions. Since graduating, Urschel has kept working with math, publishing academic papers and doing intense high-level research.

Urschel was in New York last week to promote his partnership with the marketing firm Persado, which uses advanced math concepts to help companies to reach customers more effectively. While he was in town, he stopped by the SI Kids offices to talk about math, why it’s important kids learn math, and his thoughts on the upcoming football season.

Check out an edited version of our conversation, and pick up the July issue of SI Kids for a profile of the world’s biggest mathlete!

Is there a way for a way for a kid who might not be good at math but loves football to take football and use it to get better at math or get more interested in it? We hear a lot about using fantasy football to learn more about math…

Yes, you can use fantasy football to learn about math, but it's very much on the surface. It’s a conduit in a sense where you're doing some math, you're doing calculations, it's fun. But really what is deep at its core is you can take principles you know and love from football and apply it to math. Mainly the competitiveness. The strong competitive drive, like, I am going to beat you. There is this challenge, this problem to solve and I’m going get at this and be victorious.

And then, beyond that, to show kids that math matters in respect to athletics, in that the better you are at thinking quickly and efficiently the better of a football player you're going to be. One of the most important components of being an elite athlete is to be able to see something, take that information at an instant, and make a split second decision, and make sure it is the right decision. This is something that requires great intelligence and it requires fast twitch brain muscles. Not just fast twitch running jumping hitting. Fast twitch thinking, which mathematics trains.

A lot of kids play the Madden video games. Is there a way for kids to play Madden and take math out of that? How good is a game like Madden in replicating the experience?

It’s a fairly good replicator. And if you’re playing Madden, you're going to need to be able to see things and make decisions very quickly. 

For a kid who hears you talk or reads your story and says, “I didn’t like math before, but John Urschel’s getting me interested in math,” what can they do beyond school to become math students, or students in general?

I think the biggest thing for them to do is to find an area that they're passionate about. The key to being successful in academics or anything like that is: this is not drudgery, it is enjoying what you do. So, if they think their times tables is just this terrible drudgery, then, you know what, don't just drudge through it. Why don't them and their parents have a competition? See who can get the most right in a minute. Have a challenge.

When we talked for the story in our July issue, you mentioned you liked to do puzzles when you were a kid. And now you’re getting into chess. What kinds of non-technological games or things can kids play or do to get better at math and build their brains?

Chess is a good one. Reading, although not directly math related, helps in general and it helps with your intellectual curiosity, which ties back into mathematics. I would say playing quantitative-related games where you have to think. So, perhaps the games you’re playing at home, add in games that involve thought and not just pure randomness. 

Did you have a favorite book as a kid?

I did. And it’s not like a novel book. No one’s asked me this. Ever. Or I’ve never told anybody this ever. This is the book that changed my life, and I think it's one of the biggest reasons why I am and who I am today. It's called The Big Book of Tell Me Why. I still have it. It's old and it’s beat up and it's got mud stains and everything. It has all thee different chapters explaining why all these different things in the world are the way they are. Why does it lightning? How does lightning work? Why do birds travel south for the winter? Like, thousands of different answers to these kinds of questions. And when I was a child, my mother, who was an attorney, she would go to night court and she would take me with her. We had The Big Book of Tell Me Why in the trunk, and I would pull out the book and she would sit me in the corner of the courthouse in the back and she would go do her stuff. And I would just be in the corner reading through this book. And I read through this book at least 50 times, cover to cover, when I was a kid. It's something that shaped me, and it really just helped foster my growth and my curiosity. The Big Book of Tell Me Why.

Turning to football, you had a good end of the season last year, coming in as a starter and helping the Ravens in the playoffs. Going into camp this summer, does that experience make things feel different? Like, maybe you’re competing for a starting job or it maybe feels more legit than your first year…?

I don’t think I’m competing for a starting job, in that we have the best offensive lineman in football. So says Pro Football Focus, but also in my opinion. Best offensive lineman in football in Marshall Yonda, perennial Pro Bowler, also All Pro, at right guard. At left guard, we have a guy by the name of Kelechi Osemele, second-round pick and one of the top-rated guards via Pro Football Focus, Pro Bowl alternate, 6’5”, phenomenal athlete. Our center, Jeremy Zuttah fantastic athlete, making in the order of three-million-and-change a year. Something tells me those three are pretty well set. But what I do take pride in is being the best backup in the NFL. The best center and guard backup you’ll find on any team, where they look at our team and they say, “Good God, man, their backup would be one of the better starting offensive lineman on our team.”

Photos: Steve Boyle for Sports Illustrated

john urschel baltimore ravens math
john urschel baltimore ravens math
john urschel baltimore ravens math