Interview With Former Pro Football Player and
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FNL: How much time would you say football took up?
JU: In season, it certainly takes up well more than half your waking hours. There are rules in the NCAA about hour limits, but these rules are broken just about everywhere. It’s well known that big-time college football is more or less a full-time job.
FNL: The idea that you’re really into math and that you’re on the football team is kind of a cognitive dissonance. Did that affect you? Were you a different person when you were with your teammates?
JU: I was, to some extent, because football culture and the culture of a math department are completely different.
FNL: And for you especially coming from a Jesuit school, the idea of that kind of moral or social upbringing, it’s going to be a little different than Penn State or Big Ten football culture.
JU: It’s true, but I didn’t feel particularly out of place. I got a tiny bit of pushback early on from the football team with respect to my coursework, but once they saw that I could play, everything was going to be fine.
FNL: OK. So, freshman year, how did that go football wise? Did you start?
JU: No, I was redshirted. It means you’re on scholarship, but you don’t play for a year and you save your eligibility. I was an offensive lineman, and offensive linemen are usually redshirted the first year. More than any other position, it’s the one where high school kids need to develop in order to compete at higher levels.
FNL: So, you have to go to school that fifth year and take classes as well, but you can play football into that fifth year.
FNL: And in your sophomore year?
JU: I was a reserve during sophomore year. At that time, I decided I was a math major. I took this course called real analysis, taught by this math professor, Vadim Kaloshin, who got his PhD from Princeton. He’s now the Brin Chair of Dynamical Systems at the University of Maryland. He recognized some potential and really took an interest in me. He was the person who really introduced me to the idea of what a mathematician does and what mathematical research is. I did my first project with him, which led to my first paper, a research paper on the three-body problem.
FNL: Well, even though some of our readers may want to know what the three-body problem is, it might be a little too complicated for our interview.
JU: It would be. I found that I really enjoyed it. He would send me problems and things to read, and the stuff I did with him took up 90% of my academic time. The other 10% was for all my classes.
FNL: Then it’s your junior year.
JU: Correct, my junior year. I wasn’t starting on the football team yet, but I was a split starter. I split every game with this other player who was a fourth-year senior. He played the first and third quarters at right guard and I played the second and fourth. That’s how it went for my entire junior year. It was the same year that all this Paterno/Sandusky stuff came out.
FNL: That was the child sex abuse scandal concerning assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, resulting in his conviction and the firing of long-time head football coach Joe Paterno.
FNL: Was it more difficult playing football because of the scandal and the firing of Paterno?
JU: Not really. I loved our new coach, Bill O’Brien. And what can you say about it? It was just this awful tragedy, an awful, awful tragedy, and I’m not sure there’s much for me to say to do it justice.
FNL: And the academic side?
JU: That year, my junior year, I started taking my first graduate courses in mathematics. Vadim left, going back to the University of Maryland. I was uncertain about what I should study. I started doing some graduate course work in numerical analysis, and getting into this and that. I finished my undergraduate degree in my third year, and so in my fourth year I started my Masters in math. I thought about starting my PhD, but I wanted to have time to focus on football, and I thought I wanted to do my PhD somewhere other than Penn State. Penn State is a great institution, but I felt that I was a very strong math candidate, and I wanted to go to a top math PhD program – not for the name, but to be around brilliant people. It’s not always fair, but where you do your PhD matters.
FNL: So, that’s your fourth year, but it’s your third year of football.
JU: Right. I was taking PhD-level coursework. Penn State doesn’t really have a Masters program; it consists of taking PhD coursework, a little bit of undergrad coursework, and doing a thesis. I was also a starter on the football team. I ended up earning First Team Big 10 honors, which was a huge thing for me. That spring, I wrote my thesis and taught a course in trigonometry and analytic geometry, not as a TA. I loved teaching, which I took as another a sign that I wanted to be a professor.
FNL: Then it’s your fifth year.
JU: During my fifth year, I taught another course, vector calculus. Since I had graduated that previous spring with my Masters, I needed to enroll in something, so I enrolled in a math education Masters. It’s a great field, but not really for me. I signed up for it just to be eligible to play football. I didn’t take any math education classes. I signed up for reading courses with some professors that I was already doing research with, so it was like I wasn’t taking any classes at all, which is just what I wanted. I wanted to focus on football my last semester, because ideally I was going to the NFL.
FNL: So now it seems the dichotomy between football and academia is getting stronger and stronger.
JU: It is. It started out very mild. I do a little bit of math, I do a little bit of football, but how good am I at either? I don’t know. It turns out I’m very good at both, but it all kind of feels the same to me. I was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round.
FNL: That’s pretty high, fifth round.
JU: It’s not bad. I was drafted as a center. Centers usually aren’t drafted very high.
FNL: And what about academia?
JU: Well, I was not in any math programs during my first year in the NFL. I was focusing on football. I was still doing some research with professors I know and doing some reading and things on my own. But after my first year, I very much missed the academic culture. So I applied to MIT.
FNL: Did you apply just to MIT?
JU: Just to MIT.
FNL: Did you have any connections or know people who were connected to MIT?
JU: I didn’t really. I looked at different math programs and I thought MIT was the best one for me. I was accepted, and I started going to school here while playing in the NFL. Because I was playing pro football, the MIT Math Department was very understanding. They let me start that spring semester, 2016, instead of the following fall semester.
FNL: So now you’re playing in the NFL and attending MIT. And that football/academia dichotomy – how do you think it affected you?
JU: Truthfully, I was never concerned about it. I never really experienced any problems from either side. I think this is either one of my good qualities or one of my very bad qualities. I don’t really care what people say. I say: This is what I’m going to do and you can say what you want about it.
I love MIT. I took four classes my first semester just because I saw all these amazing PhD courses and I couldn’t choose among them. I ended up being advised by Michel Goemans, who’s now the Department Head. He wrote one of the most beautiful papers I’d ever seen, on the max cut. He always has time for me, and he really emphasizes learning. I am very thankful to have him as my advisor.
FNL: So the spring semester ends and it’s back to football.
JU: Yeah. Leaving MIT was hard because I loved it here so much, and frankly I’ve never been happier anywhere else.
FNL: Right. So, you’re here for spring and summer and . . .
JU: No, just spring. During summer I’ve got football training.
FNL: Right. And when you leave here there are no side courses when you’re playing football the way it was at Penn State.
JU: No, that fall I took a course in probability theory and a reading course too.
FNL: But you’re not here.
JU: I’m not here, but I send in my assignments via correspondence while playing my third year. Then the season ends in January and I come back to MIT. I’ve got my qualifying exams as soon as I get back at the beginning of February. So I’m studying like crazy as soon as the season ends. I pass my quals, am working with Michel, and am still training for football. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, do I want to go back to Baltimore? I’m really loving things at MIT.
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FNL: Have you ever had any injuries?
JU: I was lucky. I’ve had some hip injuries. I’ve broken some fingers. My fingers don’t look the best. I had a concussion one year. I did something to my MCL, no, PCL -- I don’t remember. One of the CLs. I separated my AC joint one year. These are small.
FNL: What about money? Were you financially secure from your NFL salary?
JU: Let me see. I made about two million from the NFL, but I also had income from endorsements, speaking engagements, things of that sort.
FNL: Just from being an NFL player?
JU: The endorsements and appearances had to do a lot with the fact that I was so unique. Offensive linemen don’t usually get those endorsements.
FNL: So the NFL money frees you from having to worry about getting money from MIT.
JU: And I’m so thankful. I loved my time in the NFL. It’s an amazing thing to be able to play at the elite level, and I’m thankful for the money I was able to make. I’m not a billionaire, but I’m at a point where I’m financially stable. I don’t ever need to worry about money. I buy things like math books and coffee. I don’t own a car. I live in Cambridge and I walk to work.
FNL: So it’s the end of the spring semester of your second year at MIT and it’s time to go back and play football.
JU: And I have a child on the way, too. I am very happy at MIT. So I decide to retire from pro football.
FNL: Well let’s back up a little. I read that when you had the concussion you found you couldn’t do the math for a while.
JU: It’s natural when you get a concussion. I mean it was a little frustrating – more than a little. It was frustrating.
FNL: Did it scare you? Did you think about the findings on CTE?
JU: No, it didn’t really scare me. I knew that my brain was going to recover. The CTE stuff, it’s one of those things where the rate of CTE in the NFL is not zero percent, and it’s not 99%. It’s somewhere in between. It’s not surprising. I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering about it. I just said to myself, it is what it is.
FNL: So you’d say that your decision to quit football had to do with MIT and your family, not any kind of concern about your physical health?
JU: Well, I wouldn’t say zero concern. I began to care a lot more about my longevity. I’d say it was really two things. One, I loved MIT and I just didn’t want to spend time away from it anymore. I wanted to focus on becoming a very good mathematician. And two, I started caring about longevity. I wanted to be able to walk my daughter down the aisle and things like that.
FNL: Do you have any regrets about playing professional football and possibly risking your future?
JU: In hindsight, would I have done anything different? No. I loved my time in the NFL. I’m proud of being able to play the sport at the elite level. I started playoff games and played against the world’s best. I’ll have those experiences for the rest of my life, and I don’t regret them. Now, though, I’m ready to move on and focus on math. I have math goals. I love being here. If I had it my way, I’d love to be a professor here.
FNL: What are your math goals?
JU: One, I’d like to do good research. I’m drawn both to problems that have importance in our world, and problems that are interesting for their elegance. I want people to look back and say, “John Urschel, he did some things.”
FNL: Would teaching and research be the way to do that?
JU: Right now I’m doing some research. I also want to inspire young people in mathematics. And there is something that I don’t ever talk about – but maybe I should. I’m Black. I like the fact being Black has nothing to do with how good of a mathematician I am or how people perceive me as a mathematician. I fully believe that, and it’s a beautiful thing about math: it’s very merit-based. I believe that’s true in the majority of sciences. But one of the realities is that the percentage of African Americans in fields like mathematics is pretty low. And if you look up famous African American mathematicians, the majority of them are famous for being the first African American to do something, instead of for the work they did. The first African American to get a PhD; the first African American to get a PhD from Yale; the first African American woman to do this or that. And you know what? I’m thankful for those pioneering people. But what I’m really looking forward to is the day when being an African American mathematician doesn’t really mean much. I want to be a person who does something and who just happens to be African American. I am aware that I have some responsibility there. I don’t take it lightly.
FNL: Thank you so much for sharing that.
JU: Of course. I don’t like talking about it much, because I don’t like bringing attention to differences. I can’t wait for the day when it’s just not a thing. I can’t wait for the day when the idea of having a conference and awards for African American mathematicians sounds absolutely ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as having a conference and awards for Caucasian-American mathematicians.
FNL: For years MIT has been concerned about increasing the number of underrepresented minorities at the Institute – both students and faculty. Have you explored participating in that type of activity?
JU: I’m aware of the problem, but I don’t know how to fix it. I do a decent amount of outreach, visiting schools, trying to do things, but I actually try to do these things irrespective of race, color, or background. I try to inspire all young people in mathematics, including African Americans. It’s a tough subject, and I might not be the right person to talk to about it. I haven’t studied racial inequality or diversity initiatives. But here I am. I’m a mathematician, and I’m African American. I’ve been in the national spotlight, and there aren’t many like me.
FNL: And you’re a role model. You can’t help but be one.
JU: Yes. I want to do good things not only for my own sake. I’d like to be a mathematician who is remembered for his work, adding to the list of Black mathematicians who are known for good results.
FNL: So what are your goals for the future now that you’ve retired from professional football and are a full-time PhD candidate?
JU: My goal is to prepare to be a good mathematician. I will probably do a post-doc somewhere, and then see what places will have me.
FNL: After that what kind of work? What are the job opportunities for mathematicians?
JU: I want to stay in academia, so I’m only looking for academic positions. I love it here at MIT, so when I’m done with my post-doc and I’m applying to places, if MIT would have me, I’d come back in a heartbeat.
FNL: And what are the job opportunities for mathematicians outside of academia?
JU: Mathematicians often get hired on Wall Street and by tech companies: your Amazons, your Googles, your Yahoos. I believe the NSA claims that they’re the single biggest employer of mathematicians in the country. But did I mention I really love MIT? [LAUGHTER]
FNL: Anything else you’d like to say?
JU: Just that I wake up in the morning and I say to myself: Where else would I rather be? What else would I rather be doing? And there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. That’s just a beautiful thing.
FNL: Well thank you, John, for your time.
JU: Thank you, it’s been fun.
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