School: Penn State University
Major: Mathematics (BS), Mathematics (Masters); Math Education (Masters)
Mathematician and offensive lineman are two words that are rarely used together to describe a single individual. For Penn State University guard and mathematics teacher John Urschel, those two descriptors come together seamlessly.
Since arriving at Penn State in 2009, Urschel has racked up impressive stats for the Nittany Lions while earning his bachelor’s and master’s in math — and finishing work this semester on a second master’s in math education, all while carrying a 4.0 GPA along the way. He’s the embodiment of brains and brawn rolled into one — and one of the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholars of the Year.
A three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, Urschel plans on earning a Ph.D. — after he spends some time in the National Football League. He recently returned from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, a weeklong showcase where players perform tests in front of coaches, general managers and scouts. The NFL Draft takes place the first weekend in May.
Getting into the NFL has been his dream since high school, says Urschel, 22, who was born in Winnipeg, Canada. “It was kind of a long shot, but as I got farther along in my career, I started to see it becoming more realistic,” he says. “After my junior season [at Penn] people started talking about me for the NFL.”
In this last season, Urschel started all 12 games at right guard, extending his starts streak to 24 straight games. He was instrumental in helping the Nittany Lions gain 574 yards of total offense against Eastern Michigan, their most since gaining 594 yards against Coastal Carolina in 2008.
Urschel was awarded the 2013 William V. Campbell Trophy in December 2013. He’s the first Penn State student-athlete to win the Campbell Trophy.
In March, Urschel was named as one of 19 semifinalists for the 84th Sullivan Award, presented by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to America’s top amateur athlete. Past football recipients include Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow.
As accomplished as he is on the gridiron, Urschel dazzles those who come to know about his mathematics abilities. Football, he says, takes a lot of hard work, but for him, math comes easy. Last spring, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman was published in the Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy journal for his paper “Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”
It’s an impressive feat for someone who has yet to earn a Ph.D., says Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor of mathematics who has known Urschel for about three years and worked with him on the paper. “That’s not very common.”
Zikatanov also advised Urschel on his master’s thesis. He sees a rare combination in the scholar-athlete. Urschel “has very good intuition; he likes solving problems,” Zikatanov says. “He’s the only one I’ve seen in my career who combines math and sports.”
It’s no surprise that Urschel excels in academics and sports, given his family background. His father, who is Canadian, played football at the University of Alberta before becoming a thoracic surgeon. His mother, who’s from Cincinnati, was an operating room nurse before becoming a lawyer. They met working in the hospital at Ohio State. Urschel is their only child.
“My mom had a big influence on my academics,” Urschel says. “She always wanted me to do well in school.” His mother often bought home educational toys for children twice his age and Urschel would master them in no time. She sent him to Canisius High School, a Jesuit prep school in Buffalo, N.Y., where he grew up. She wanted him to attend MIT.
At Canisius, Urschel discovered his passion for football, earning all-state and Western New York Lineman-of-the-Year honors. Boston University and Stanford came knocking with scholarships. So did the Penn State football program, led then by Joe Paterno.
After visiting Penn State, Urschel “fell in love with the atmosphere, teammates [and] great guys in the locker room.” He also wanted to play for the legend that was Paterno.
It was hard for him and everyone after the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Urschel says. “One of the biggest challenges was dealing with sanctions from NCAA and sticking together as a team.”
But that’s all in the past and Urschel is focused now on the NFL and finishing his master’s in math education. In the classroom, he’s the teacher now, talking equations, axioms and coordinates with his trigonometry and analytical geometry students.
“He definitely enjoys teaching,” Zikatanov says. “He delivers difficult concepts to [help students] understand. His lectures are not boring.”
Xiaozhe Hu, a research assistant professor who taught Urschel in two courses, marvels at how good the “big guy” who once sat in his class is at math. They’ve since collaborated on graph theory problems. Hu, who is headed to Tufts University as an assistant professor, sees a bright future for Urschel in mathematics. “
Maybe after he finishes NFL, I’ll recruit him.”