John Urschel Feels 'At Home' In MIT Ph.D Program


During the offseason, many players from around the NFL return to college to finish getting their degrees.

For Ravens center/guard John Urschel, that doesn't mean wrapping up a four-year undergrad program.

"For me, finishing my degree is my PH.D," said Urschel, who is now a few weeks into his program.

Even before he entered college at Penn State, Urschel envisioned himself getting his Ph.D at an Ivy League institution. Now he simply feels like he's following through on that plan.

"It's important to me as a football player, but also as a role model, to finish my education," Urschel said. "If I didn't play football and didn't suspend things to go to the NFL, I'd most likely be in my fourth and last year of my Ph.D right now. I'd be getting a Ph.D this spring."

As it stands now, this is the beginning of a multi-year program. By the end of it, Urschel intends to be a well-known and well-respected mathematician – not just a football player who is also really good at math.

Urschel does math in his spare time, meaning he reads mathematics books, studies and works on his own research. During the offseason, he has more spare time than normal, so he does more math. That's what he'd be doing even if he wasn't in college.

So he figured, why not go back to school?

According to his MIT online profile, Urschel's focused on spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra and machine learning. But he won't get into what he's specifically working on. That's top secret, he says.

"Me saying I'm doing something is like shining a bright light around a bunch of bugs; they're all going to come to it," he said with a laugh. "Stay away from the things I'm researching."

Urschel has his own cubicle and is in a couple classes. He spends a lot of time just talking math with his professors and other students. It's a pretty drastic change from the NFL locker room or cafeteria.

Asked if he's been at all intimidated by the level of intelligence of those around him now, Urschel said, "Math is math. I'm good at math, man. You don't give me enough credit."

"I feel like I'm at home," he continued. "I haven't been here that long and already I have people that I get along with extremely well because we share this love of math. It's not a feeling I'm used to having in my everyday life."

Urschel is also making his mother happy in the process. She was pushing him to go to MIT for his undergrad, but Urschel chose Penn State instead, in part because he wanted to play for legendary coach Joe Paterno. He said a lot of people thought he was "pretty stupid" for turning down Stanford and Princeton.

But while Urschel was at Penn State, he picked up his bachelor's and master's degrees in math, both with a 4.0 grade-point average. He was already taking doctorate-level courses.

Urschel has already published multiple math papers, including, "A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector" last March.

"I was acting as if I was a Ph.D student while at Penn State," he said. "I've been doing Ph.D things for the past four years and I don't have anything to show for it."

At the same time, Urschel is making sure to keep up with his football duties. He's lifting four times per week, running, stretching, doing offensive line drills and practicing his snapping. He said he's revamped his diet and is eating healthier than ever.

Urschel started seven games last year after center Jeremy Zuttah (pectoral) went on injured reserve. He could have another big role next season either at center or guard, especially if Kelechi Osemele departs in free agency.

"I'm really making sure that my body is right when I come back for OTAs," Urschel said.

"First and foremost, I wanted to make sure I had time to train, time to dedicate to football and time to relax. But most offseasons, I'll find time to do math anyway. So I might as well get credit for it."

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