Football Hunting: Penn State's Urschel a math whiz, grid star

Less than 48 hours after receiving the biggest honor of his life, one of the most remarkable trophies given out during this week of the Heisman and Outland and Walter Camp awards ceremonies, Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel was in his car, driving out of State College, Pa. He was headed to Pittsburgh on Thursday night, 2 1/2 hours away, when I tracked him down on U.S. Highway 22.

He had tweeted earlier in the evening that he was going out of town -- On the road to Pittsburgh! -- so I was interrupting something fun. But still, he won that trophy, one of the few awards in college football that can be won by any player regardless of position, but only if he's the absolute best. Win an award like this, and doors open. They open for the rest of your life, as they have opened for past winners like Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow.

John Urschel won the 2013 William V. Campbell Trophy on Tuesday night, given to the football player with the best combination of academics, service and football. Some folks call it the "academic Heisman," and that works, and I wanted to know how it felt. So when I found him on Thursday and asked him to describe it, he couldn't.

"Words fail me," he said.

Try, I said. You're at the National Football Foundation's awards ceremony on Tuesday. You're at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York with the other finalists. They call your name. What do you feel?

Silence. He's driving to Pittsburgh. There's not much between there and State College, not much beyond the streams and hardwoods of Pine Ridge Park. He lost the cell signal. That's what must've--

"OK," he said, breaking the silence. "This is what it was like: I hear them call my name and it's just … pure joy."

And now, I say. Now you're heading to Pittsburgh. Who are you celebrating with?

No pause here. No silence. Urschel starts to laugh, and I wait him out until he's ready to talk. And this is what he said.

"I'm not going to celebrate," he said. "I'm speaking at a middle school."

* * *

Someday John Urschel will do something that makes the world stand up and applaud. But first he's going to play in the NFL.

"This is something I'm going to do," he says. "I love football, I'm only young once, and I'm going to play at the highest level."

But the mock drafts, I said. They don't have you as a high draft pick. The one here at has you going in the seventh round, at best, and there are only seven rounds in the NFL Draft.

"I'm going to play in the NFL," he says. "I've set my mind to it."

And with that, I'm convinced. Because the most powerful muscle John Urschel has is his brain. His intelligence is why he made it to Penn State in the first place, why the coaching staff gave one of its last scholarships in 2009 to an undersized, underrated recruit from upstate New York. John Urschel was a two-star recruit, and two-star recruits play for Buffalo. And Buffalo was one of the only FBS schools offering a scholarship until Penn State came along and extended its 24th scholarship in a 25-man class.

Urschel had to talk his mom into it -- Penn State is a great school, but she had always envisioned her son going to MIT or Princeton -- but he won that debate. He played some as a redshirt freshman, started every game as a sophomore and was All-Big Ten as a junior and again this season as a senior.

Urschel has earned two degrees, a bachelor's and a master's in mathematics. He earned the first degree in three years, the master's in the fourth, and received all A's. His grade-point average was and still is a 4.0, even as he has spent his fifth-year senior season working toward a second master's -- in math education -- and playing football. And teaching Math 232 to undergrads.

What is Math 232? Integral Vector Calculus. What is that? No idea, but it's the sort of thing John Urschel teaches to other math scholars at Penn State. Along the way he has been the go-to teammate for anyone struggling in math, not ostracized for his intelligence -- as Stanford graduate Jonathan Martin was ostracized by the Miami Dolphins for his -- but embraced for it.

"All my teammates are supportive of me, and they think it's amazing the things I do," Urschel says. "They're especially supportive when they have math class -- I'm the team's unofficial math tutor."

I ask Urschel another question about Jonathan Martin, wanting to know if he worries that what happened to Martin will happen to him in the NFL, and he starts to answer before that brain of his makes a logical, if incorrect in this case, leap.

"I did follow that story and to be perfectly honest I didn't even think about that [comparison] because listen, yes, I'm extremely intelligent, I'm good at math, but I'm just another one of the guys," he says. "I hang out with all the other guys and I'm a football player like everyone else. Let me tell you, if someone was giving me a hard time, I'd give them a hard time right back."

OK, I said, just wonder--

"Hey," Urschel says, interrupting me. "Is this going to be a nice story?"

Oh, John. "Nice" won't begin to describe this story.

* * *

His mom knew he was a math prodigy before he did. Smartest guy in the room, no clue that his intelligence was all that unique. That's how John Urschel grew up, devouring math books once his mom figured out when he was 6 or 7 how advanced he was. By age 10 he had taught himself trigonometry. At 12 he was attending summer classes at the University of Buffalo for fun, learning calculus, helping other students -- college-aged students -- when they came to him for assistance.

"I really didn't think anything of it," he says.

It wasn't until Urschel got to Penn State and started acing math classes on campus that he realized he was born with something … special. Along the way he saw the Matt Damon movie Goodwill Hunting about the math prodigy -- "Of course I saw it," he laughed at me when I asked -- but he wants no part of that comparison.

"I'll let you decide," he says.

Oh, I've decided. Teaching calculus to college kids at age 12? Two math degrees in four years at Penn State, close to a third degree in 4 1/2 years? Urschel loves math research and has published one paper -- "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamic Astronomy -- and has had a second paper approved for publication in the journal Communications in Mathematical Finance. That paper's title is "A Space-Time Multigrid Method for the Numerical Valuation of Barrier Options."

And what does that mean? It means I've decided: John Urschel is very much like the math whiz in that Matt Damon movie. And if you're wondering about the math portion of the GRE, which like all graduate-school applicants Urschel had to take, Urschel received a perfect score of 800.

Before he's finished Urschel says he will get a Ph.D in math -- he mentioned Stanford, MIT and Princeton as possibilities -- and then "really do something that matters with respect to mathematics. There's a lot of applications in math. I have some ideas of things I can do. Math finance is a great place for applied mathematics. Something else I'm serious about is doing sports analytics. Data analysis for football."

My ears perk up. This, I understand.

"Like sabermetrics for the NFL?" I ask.

"Exactly," he says. "I'm not entirely sure a pure statistical approach is the best way to go about it. There is some research in it, and there are people doing some things, but I believe to a large extent it's untapped."

Before all that, though, he says he will play in the NFL.

"I've decided," he tells me on his drive to Pittsburgh, where he will speak to a middle school about math and education and football, and I can assure you of this: Those kids will hear about those topics in that order from John Urschel.

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