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The Caw: The Internet (And Conan O'Brien) Loves John Urschel


Ravens rising sophomore guard John Urschel is getting more media requests these days than quarterback Joe Flacco.

Urschel is becoming the face of the brainy football player, smashing stereotypes. And it's made him an internet darling the past couple weeks.

Even late-night comedian Conan O'Brien tweeted about Urschel last weekend:

This is what Urschel's typical offseason day has looked like.

There's five hours of training, including lifting, running, football drills, kickboxing and mixed martial arts wrestling. There's five hours of math, and one hour of playing chess.

"I feel like I've got the best job in the world right now because, no matter what time of year it is, I'm on vacation," Urschel said.

"Right now I'm on vacation from football and I get to do math. What's even more awesome is in a couple weeks, I'm about to be on vacation from math for half a year and I get to play football. I'm on vacation 365 days of the year, and it feels amazing."

When he's not devouring defensive linemen, Urschel sleeps, eats and drinks math. Deadspin declared Urschel "loves math more than you love anything."

The fifth-round pick out of Penn State was the Campbell Trophy winner as the nation's premier college football scholar athlete. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in math in just three years (with a 4.0 GPA), then got his masters in a year (with another 4.0). He taught Vector Calculus Trigonometry to Penn State students while he was still enrolled at the school.

Urschel's love of math, which began at a very young age and was encouraged by his mother, hasn't stopped just because he's in the NFL. He just shelved it during his spectacular rookie season, in which he started five games (including two starts in both playoffs games).

Earlier this month, Urschel had a paper published in the Journal of Computational Mathematics. It's called, "A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians."

When I asked Urschel to explain the premise to a layman, I mispronounced three of those words. He laid it out in one sentence and I still didn't understand, so here’s a summary. Decode it and get back to me. Forbes tried and failed.

What's funny is that's not Urschel's first scholarly published paper (he's up to four now), and it's not even his best. His best, which was published about a year ago before Urschel was drafted, was called "Spectral Bisection of Graphs and Connectedness," and it was in the top math journal, "Linear Algebra and Its Applications."

Urschel said it "hurts a little bit inside" that his newest paper is the one getting the attention.

"It's a good paper. I'm proud of it," he said. "But there's another paper of my mine, which I'm extremely, extremely proud of. It's a significant contribution to its field, published in a top journal. But that's not what people want to talk about."

Urschel also competed in his first chess tournament this year, the Pittsburgh Open U1700. Competing against people that have been playing for a "long, long time and take chess very, very seriously," Urschel notched two wins, two ties and one loss.

If you remember, he kicked my butt on the daily when we started playing Chess With Friends online. The players he went against in Pittsburgh would have destroyed me.

"For my first tournament and being an amateur chess player, I think I performed pretty well – above my expectations," he said. "When I'm done with football I'll have more time and I'll take chess a little more seriously. Hopefully one day I'll become a titled player of some sort."

Urschel actually has career aspirations of one day becoming a chessboxer. Don't know what that is? Check out this ESPN feature on it from 2007. It's the ultimate combination of brawling and brains.

But Urschel's math publications and chess play aren't what largely put him on the map in recent weeks.

It was his writing of a different sort on the new website, "The Players' Tribune," in which Urschel penned an article entitled, "Why I Play Football." It was his take on the early retirement of 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who was concerned about the long-term effects of football on his brain.

Urschel and Borland are friend and competed against each other in the Big-10 at Penn State and Wisconsin, respectively, and were drafted the same year.

Urschel eloquently explained that he's also had conversations with family about why he risks his brain's health to play football, but says he's "addicted" to the physical contact.

"His decision hit home for me in that I feel like I'm in the same boat with Chris, possibly even more so, in terms of playing football but also having all these opportunities outside of football," Urschel said. "With all this stuff going on in the media, I felt like I wanted to just write something small about why I play football and my take on it."

Urschel wasn't expecting the attention the article drew. And once people read it, and did their research on Urschel himself, they found out how interesting he really is.

He did a Q&A with "Rolling Stone," in which he talked about why he still drives a tiny Nissan Versa. He was featured on a morning NPR talk show. Then came the tweet from Conan.

So what does Urschel think of all the attention?

"I didn't really think much of anything to be honest," Urschel said. "I don't really care about that stuff. I play football. I do math."

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