Penn State fans watched him thrive on the offensive line as a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012 and 2013.
Those in the academic community know him as an author in mathematics and someone who’s pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT — while playing in the NFL.
Casual football fans saw him star in a national Bose commercial with Houston Texans star JJ Watt, talking about acoustic operators and writing formulas on a white board indecipherable to the common person.
John Urschel is a man of many talents — and we caught up with the former Nittany Lion for this week’s edition of “5 Questions.”
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Q: I’ll start with more of a broad question you can take whichever way you’d like. After a couple years in the league, has the NFL been what you expected it to be? In what ways has it been different?
A: I think the way in which it’s been what I expected is I feel very lucky and very privileged to play at the elite level of football. To love a sport, play a sport, and be able to reach the pinnacle of that is something that’s meant a lot to me. To be around so many elite athletes, future Hall of Famers, that’s really what I expected. I’d say one thing I didn’t expect about pro football is how much of a business it is. It really is a job. You have your hours. People get hired. People get fired. It’s not quite like college football. At Penn State, we were all extremely, extremely close, and guys are close to some degree in the NFL. But it’s not the same as college football.
Q: A year ago you tweeted that you got four A’s in four classes at MIT. Not too shabby. What’s academic life been like for you in recent months? What are you currently working on?
A: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. I’m sure my advisor will ask me the same thing (laughs). Kidding. I’ve been keeping my interests somewhat diverse. At Penn State, I started out studying dynamical systems, then I got really into numerical analysis and graph theory. At MIT, I’ve decided to do some things that are somewhat different than what I did at Penn State. You go to a new place, and I don’t tend to pick people I work with based off what area they work on. I tend to pick people based off if I think they’re good people and they love what they do. I’d rather be around good people working on an average problem, than average people working on a good problem. Not to say I’m working on average problems. My advisor is Michel Goemans at MIT. He’s currently the department head, a distinguished professor, brilliant guy. He’s one of the top researchers in an area of math known as combinatorial optimization, which is new to me but I’m learning on the fly. I’m also doing a lot of things with machine learning with some good faculty there.
Q: When you entered the NFL, everyone from Penn State and eventually around the country knew about your intelligence — this football player that’s so smart. How did that persona or perception translate in the Ravens’ locker room? What was your teammates’ reaction to that stuff?
A: Guys thought it was cool and interesting — but really in the NFL, people don’t care too, too much about what you do in the offseason and what you do outside of football, both for good and for bad. What matters most is when it’s time to be there, when it’s time to play, that you’re ready and you can help the team win. That’s the biggest thing.
Q: Back when you were at Penn State, did you ever think you’d be in a national commercial with JJ Watt? What was the coolest part of that experience?
A: Zero percent chance (laughs). Zero percent chance. It was interesting. JJ is a good guy. I had played against him previously. He was easy to work with. Bose is a great company, and I’m very lucky to be one of their athletes. It’s not one of those things that I ever expected, not one of those things I ever hoped for. But I’m also glad that the whole notion that you can be an athlete but also be intelligent is something that’s getting some attention.
Q: You’re now competing for a starting job on Baltimore’s offensive line. What’s your outlook for this season, and how long do you want to play professional football if you’ve thought that far?
A: Right now I’m competing at the center spot for Baltimore, and I’m going to give it a go. Give it my best like I always do, and hopefully I earn the starting nod. If I don’t, that’s okay as well. I’ve been lucky, man. I’ve got three years in the NFL, and this will be my fourth. Really, first of all, I’d very much like to be the starting center. If not, I’d very much like to still be playing in Baltimore for the sake of my family. If not, I’d like to at least have a fourth year in the NFL somewhere. I’ve learned just from experience and looking around at other guys that this is a league where you really need to take things year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day. You might have a certain plan about your career, but the NFL usually has a different one.