Baltimore celebrates the Ravens' Super Bowl victory

The Baltimore Ravens celebrated the second NFL title in franchise history with a Charm City parade on Tuesday.

Baltimore Ravens fans blow horns during a victory ceremony at City Hall Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in Baltimore. The Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers in NFL football's Super Bowl XLVII 34-31 on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Sam Muffoletto, 21, and Phil Luzi, 21, hold up signs and a home-made Super Bowl trophy as they wait for the start of Baltimore's celebration for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens at Ravens stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Officials expect about 100,000 people to attend the events. (AP Photo/Alex Dominguez)

Sam Muffoletto, 21, and Phil Luzi, 21, hold up signs and a home-made Super Bowl trophy as they wait for the start of Baltimore's celebration for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens at Ravens stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Officials expect about 100,000 people to attend the events. (AP Photo/Alex Dominguez)

Lewis, Urlacher, Moss, Seymour among hall semifinalists

FILE-This Jan. 6, 2013, file photo shows Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis (52) working against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Baltimore. First-year eligibles Lewis and Randy Moss are among 27 semifinalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The hall said Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, that all ties for the 25th spot in the semifinals also advance. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

FILE-This Jan. 6, 2013, file photo shows Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis (52) working against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game in Baltimore. First-year eligibles Lewis and Randy Moss are among 27 semifinalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The hall said Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, that all ties for the 25th spot in the semifinals also advance. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

Justin Tucker

El jugador de los Baltimore Ravens quiso desear a todos un feliz día, y qué mejor manera que cenando, en el campo de juego. Foto: Twitter @jtuck9

Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens preview | NFL Now

Here are the top 4 things you need to know about the Week 12 match-up between the Texans and the Ravens, along with our predicted winner.

Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens preview | NFL Now

Here are the top 4 things you need to know about the Week 12 match-up between the Texans and the Ravens, along with our predicted winner.

Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens preview | NFL Now

Here are the top 4 things you need to know about the Week 12 match-up between the Texans and the Ravens, along with our predicted winner.

Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens preview | NFL Now

Here are the top 4 things you need to know about the Week 12 match-up between the Texans and the Ravens, along with our predicted winner.

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew breaks down the Ravens' upcoming schedule and lays out a path for them to make it to 10 wins.

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew breaks down the Ravens' upcoming schedule and lays out a path for them to make it to 10 wins.

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew breaks down the Ravens' upcoming schedule and lays out a path for them to make it to 10 wins.

How the Baltimore Ravens can make it to 10 wins

NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew breaks down the Ravens' upcoming schedule and lays out a path for them to make it to 10 wins.

A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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NFL Playoff Picture: Standings, Matchups, Scenarios Entering Week 12

The completion of Week 11 means we're somehow already 64% through the NFL season. While there's still plenty of time for the playoff picture to go haywire—which it almost certainly will—we're at a point in the year when postseason scenarios are beginning to take shape. By now, a few teams are virtual locks to make the playoffs while a number of franchises need to strike some late-season magic if they're to play games when it matters most.

Before we get to the current playoff picture, let's review the qualification rules, which are the same for both the AFC and the NFC.

• The winners of each division—the North, South, East and West—qualify for the playoffs and earn the top four seeds. The team with the best record earns the No. 1 seed, the second-best earns the No. 2 seed, etc. If a team wins its division with a 7-9 record while another team qualifies as a Wild Card with an 11-5 record, the division winner will be seeded higher.

• The two teams with the best record that do not win their division qualify in the Wild Card spots, seeded fifth and sixth.

• If two teams in the same division finish with the same record, the first tiebreaker is their head-to-head record. If the teams split the two games played against each other, the next tiebreaker is the teams' record against teams within the division. If the in-division records are the same, the next tiebreaker is the teams' records in games against common opponents. If that too is is the same, the fourth tiebreaker is the teams' record against teams within the conference.

• If two teams in different divisions finish with the same record, the first tiebreaker is the head-to-head matchup, if applicable. If the teams did not play each other, the next tiebreaker is the teams' record within the conference. If that too is the same, the third tiebreaker is the teams' record against common opponents.

• The top two teams in each conference receive first-round byes. Each conference's No. 3 seed hosts the No. 6 seed, while the No. 4 seed hosts the No. 5 seed in the Wild Card Round.

• In every playoff game, the higher seed hosts the lower seed.

• After the Wild Card round comes the Divisional Round, during which the top seed in each conference plays the lowest remaining seed, while the No. 2 seed plays the higher-seeded team. There is no bracket as there is the NBA playoffs; matchups in the Divisional Round depend on the winners in the Wild Card round.

Now that the clerical stuff is out of the way, let's get to the playoff picture.

AFC

Current Wild Card Round matchups

No 6. Ravens at No. 3 Jaguars, No. 5 Titans at No. 4 Chiefs.

No. 1 Steelers, No. 2 Patriots have byes, will host Divisional Round games.

Seeding breakdown:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2, first place in AFC North)

Remaining games: vs. Packers, at Bengals, vs. Ravens, vs. Patriots, at Texans, vs. Browns.

The Steelers offense is beginning to look like the dominant unit they've been in years' past, which is bad news for the rest of the AFC. Pittsburgh has flown somewhat under the radar this season, but a five-game winning streak including Thursday night's beat-down of the Titans has the Steel City ready for another playoff run. With a three-game lead over the Ravens in the AFC North, Pittsburgh can turn its attention to securing the AFC's number one seed, but to do that, they'll likely need to beat the Patriots in a Week 15 showdown that looms large.

2. New England Patriots (8-2, first place in AFC East)

Remaining games: vs. Dolphins, at Bills, at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets

Another year, another AFC East title for the Patriots. Well, not just yet, but New England's three-game lead over the free-falling Bills feels like a six-game lead, and that Tom Brady fellow is putting up yet another season for the ages. What's most encouraging for the Patriots is the improved play of the defense; through four games, the Patriots were giving up an average of 32 points and sat at 2-2. In the six contests since, New England has given up just 12.5 points per contest and, not coincidentally, they've won all six. New England ahs all divisional games left apart from the Week 15 showdown with the Steelers.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3, first place in AFC South)

Remaining games: at Cardinals, vs. Colts, vs. Seahawks, vs. Texans, at 49ers, at Titans

It wasn't pretty, but Jacksonville's victory over the toothless Browns was its fourth straight and ensured the Jaguars their first seven-win season since 2010. This is a team that's been led by its defense—the best in the league in terms of yards given up—all season, but Blake Bortles has done a better job of not turning the football over. With three very winnable games left on the horizon—at Cardinals, vs. Colts, at 49ers—Jacksonville has a realistic path to ten wins, which would all but assure a playoff berth that most didn't see coming this season. A Week 17 matchup in Tennessee could well be for the division.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4, first place AFC West)

Remaining games: vs. Chiefs, at Jets, vs. Raiders, vs. Chargers, vs. Dolphins, at Broncos

It feels like forever ago, but just five weeks ago the Chiefs were 5-0 and the consensus best team in the NFL. Alex Smith was playing the best football of his career, rookie Kareem Hunt wore teams down in the fourth quarter and Tyreek Hill was finding ways to make electric plays every game. Since then, the Chiefs have lost of four of five including Sunday's loss to the Giants, the most concerning of all. Smith threw three interceptions and the offense couldn't convert in the redzone, giving Andy Reid just his third loss in 19 career games coming off a bye. Kansas City still has a two-game lead over the Chargers, and with four of six remaining at home they're still likely to win the division, but any hopes of securing a first-round bye are hanging by a thread.

5. Tennessee Titans (6-4, second place in AFC South)

Remaining games: at Colts, vs. Texans, at Cardinals, at 49ers, vs. Rams, vs. Jaguars

Through ten games, it's still difficult to know what to make of this Titans team. But Thursday night's shellacking at the hands of the Steelers served as a reminder that there remains a gulf between the Titans and the AFC's elite teams. Marcus Mariota & Co. will want to win at least three of their next four games, as the final two games of the season present serious challenges. Tennessee's relatively benign schedule until then should allow them to get to nine wins, but their playoff fates probably won't be decided until December.

6. Baltimore Ravens (5-5, second place in AFC North)

Remaining games: vs. Texans, vs. Lions, at Steelers, at Browns, vs. Colts, vs. Bengals

Buffalo's collapse has greatly benefited the Ravens, who took advantage of some mind-numbing turnovers from Brett Hundley to score an always elusive win at Lambeau Field. Baltimore really hasn't done anything special this season—they haven't beaten a team that currently has a winning record all season—but they've managed to beat the bad teams and win the games they should. In what's shaping out to be a top-heavy year in the AFC, that could well be enough to earn a playoff berth. Once there, anything can happen—we do know that Joe Flacco is capable of some postseason magic. In terms of tiebreakers, Baltimore has a 4-3 record against the AFC while Buffalo is 3-3 against in-conference opponents, which gives the Ravens the slight edge currently.

Outside looking in

7. Buffalo Bills (5-5)

Remaining games: at Chiefs, vs. Patriots, vs. Colts, vs. Dolphins, at Patriots, at Dolphins

Oh, Buffalo. After starting the season a surprising 5-2, Bills fans would be forgiven for letting their mind wander to the playoffs, where they haven't been since 1999. Since then, it's been nothing short of a trainwreck. First came a Thursday-night loss to the Jets, which was followed by an embarrassing 47-10 defeat at home to the Saints. That loss prompted first-year head coach Sean McDermott to bench Tyrod Taylor in favor of Nathan Peterman, a rookie who was a fifth-round pick in this year's draft. Peterman rewarded McDermott's bold move by throwing five interceptions in the first half, giving McDermott no choice but to put Taylor back in. As far as 5-5 teams go, the Bills are trending as badly as possible, and with two games against the Patriots and one at the Chiefs remaining, Buffalo's once-promising season looks like it will result in more disappointment.

8. Miami Dolphins (4-6)

Remaining games: at Patriots, vs. Broncos, vs. Patriots, at Bills, at Chiefs, vs. Bills

Miami had a good chance to get back to 5-5 and reassert itself in the playoff race this week, but three Jay Cutler turnovers hamstrung a Dolphins offense that appeared good enough to beat the Bucs. Two games at the Patriots remain as does one against the Chiefs, making Miami's path to eight or nine wins very difficult. The Dolphins do hold the tiebreaker over the Jets, as Miami is 1-1 in the AFC East while the Jets are 2-3.

No. 9 New York Jets (4-6)

Remaining games: vs. Panthers, vs. Chiefs, at Broncos, at Saints, vs. Chargers, at Patriots

Of all AFC teams still in playoff contention, the Jets have arguably the most difficult remaining schedule.

No. 10 Cincinnati Bengals (4-6)

Remaining games vs. Browns, vs. Steelers, vs. Bears, at Vikings, vs. Lions, at Ravens

The Bengals will likely need to win at least four of the last six to sneak in, but a trip to Minnesota and a Week 17 matchup in Baltimore won't make that easy.

No. 11 Houston Texans (4-6)

Remaining games: at Ravens, at Titans, vs. 49ers, at Jaguars, vs. Steelers, at Colts

The offense showed life for the first time since Deshaun Watson's ACL injury. Sunday's game against the Ravens is a virtual must-win if the Texans are to keep their playoff hopes alive.

No. 12 San Diego Chargers (4-6)

Remaining games: at Cowboys, vs. Browns, vs. Redskins, at Chiefs, at Jets, vs Raiders

The Chargers might be playing the best football of all the 4-6 teams, but a 3-5 AFC record has San Diego seeded 12th currently. The Chargers could well be 5-5 or even 6-4—they have shown an unmatched ability to continuously lose close games—so keep an eye on them as a team that could catch fire down the stretch. Week 17's matchup with the Raiders could have serious playoff implications.

No. 13 Oakland Raiders (4-6)

Remaining games: vs. Broncos, vs. Giants, at Chiefs, vs. Cowboys, at Eagles, at Chargers

With home games against the struggling Broncos and Giants up next, the Raiders have a good chance to get to 6-6 before a brutal four-game stretch that will determine their fate.

Need a miracle

No. 14 Indianapolis Colts (3-7), No. 15 Denver Broncos (3-7)

Maybe next year

No. 15 Cleveland Browns (0-10)

NFC

Current Wild Card Round matchups

No 6. Falcons at No. 3 Saints, No. 5 Panthers at No. 4 Rams.

No. 1 Eagles, No. 2 Vikings have byes, will host Divisional Round games.

Seeing breakdown

1. Philadelphia Eagles (9-1, first place in NFC East)

Remaining schedule: vs. Bears, at Seahawks, at Rams, at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys

If there was any doubt as to just how good this Eagles team was, Sunday night's pounding of the Cowboys—particularly the second half, in which the Eagles outscored Dallas 31-0—put that to rest. Carson Wentz is having an MVP caliber season and the trade for Jay Ajayi has injected new life into the running game. Philly still has a lot of work to do to lock down the number-one seed—a trip out west to play the Seahawks and Rams will be a test—but the Eagles have all but locked up the NFC East.

2. Minnesota Vikings (8-2, first place in NFC North)

Remaining games: at Lions, at Falcons, at Panthers, vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Bears

The Rams punched the Vikings in the mouth by methodically moving the ball downfield and scoring a touchdown on the opening drive, but the Vikings responded like a playoff team on Sunday and scored a well-earned 24-7 victory. Case Keenum is in perfect sync with receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and the Vikings defense is among the league's best. A win on Thanksgiving against the Lions, who handed Minnesota one of its two losses on the year, will go a long way toward an NFC North title. The Vikings hold the tiebreaker over the Saints because they beat the Saints 29-19 all the way back in Week 1.

3. New Orleans Saints (8-2, first place in NFC South)

Remaining games: at Rams, vs. Panthers, at Falcons, vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers

New Orleans somehow came back from 15 down with under five minutes remaining to pull out a remarkable win over the Redskins, who continue to shoot themselves in the foot and squander opportunities. The win kept the Saints, winners of eight straight after an 0-2 start, two games ahead of the suddenly surging Falcons in the NFC South. Their reward? A trip to take on a another division leader in the Rams, a team coming hungry to erase its worst loss of the season. Next will be two more games against teams currently in playoff position. No rest in the NFL.

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-3, first place in NFC West)

Remaining games: vs. Saints, at Cardinals, vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers

The Rams are the NFL's most improved team from a season ago, and first-year head coach/offensive genius Sean McVay is the mid-season favorite for coach of the year. Unfortunately for the Rams, they ran into a terrific Vikings team on Sunday and could not sustain the offensive success that's propelled them all season. Seattle's loss to the Falcons kept the Rams in first place, but matcups with the Saints, Eagles and Seahawks still remain. If the Rams do fight off the Seahawks to win the NFC West, they will have well and truly earned it.

5. Carolina Panthers (7-3, second place in NFC South)

Remaining schedule: at Jets, at Saints, vs. Vikings, vs. Packers, vs. Buccaneers, at Falcons

Cam Newton played his best game of the season in Week 10, and the Panthers have a good chance to get to 8-3 this weekend when they host the Jets. The problem for the Panthers is that they're in a hyper competitive NFC South with perhaps the hottest team in the NFL (Saints) and a team that made the Super Bowl last year and is hitting its stride (the Falcons). Week 13's game at New Orleans will be crucial, as will a season-ending trip to Atlanta.

No. 6 Atlanta Falcons (6-4, third place in NFC South)

Remaining schedule: vs. Buccaneers, vs. Vikings, vs. Saints, at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs. Panthers

Sunday night's win in Seattle was huge for the Falcon's playoff chances. First, it got Atlanta to 6-4, and it looks like it'll take at least nine wins to secure a playoff berth. Second, it gave Atlanta the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. While the Falcons' offense is coming to life, Atlanta's schedule does not do it any favors—four of its final six games are against teams with at least seven wins, including two games against the streaking Saints and a Week 17 matchup with the Panthers, a team that already beat the Falcons once this season. The Falcons are 5-1 in the NFC, which gives them the tiebreaker over the Lions, who are 5-3.

Outside looking in

No. 7 Detroit Lions (6-4, second place in NFC North)

Remaining schedule: vs. Vikings, at Ravens, at Buccaneers, vs. Bears, at Bengals, vs. Packers

Despite a slow start, Detroit escaped Chicago with a 27-24 victory on Sunday. If the Lions can beat the Vikings on Thanksgiving, they'll secure the head-to-head tiebreaker as they already beat them in Detroit. The rest of the schedule is very manageable, so don't count out the Lions in the NFC North.

No. 8 Seattle Seahawks (6-4)

Remaining schedule: at 49ers, vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs Rams, at Cowboys, at Cardinals

Seattle's loss to the Falcons certainly hurt in terms of tiebreakers, but the Seahawks still control their own destiny in the NFC West because they've already beaten the Rams in Los Angeles and get another crack at them in Seattle in Week 15. Both the Seahawks and Rams still have to play the Eagles, so it looks like the NFC West race will come down to the finish.

No. 9 Green Bay Packers (5-5, third place in NFC North)

Remaining schedule: at Steelers, vs. Buccaneers, at Browns, at Panthers, vs. Vikings, at Lions

Brett Hundley struggled mightily against the Ravens on Sunday, and it served as a reminder that the Packers' playoff hopes were all but crushed when Aaron Rodgers' collar bone broke.

No. 10 Dallas Cowboys (5-5, second place in NFC East)

Remaining schedule: vs. Chargers, vs. Redskins, at Giants, at Raiders, vs. Seahawks, at Eagles

Dallas has looked lost without Ezekiel Elliot and Tyron Smith. Elliott is out until Week 16, though there is some hope that Smith will return for the Thanksgiving matchup with the Chargers. Perhaps that will open up holes for Elliott's replacements and take some pressure off Dak Prescott.

Need a miracle

No. 11 Washington Redskins (4-6), No. 12 Arizona Cardinals (4-6), No. 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6)

Maybe next year

No. 14 Chicago Bears (3-7), No. 15 New York Giants (2-8), No. 16 San Francisco 49ers (1-9)

Baltimore Raven Holds Turkey Drive To Help Families In Need

A member of the Baltimore Ravens extended a helping hand for the holidays on Monday.

Baltimore Raven Holds Turkey Drive To Help Families In Need

A member of the Baltimore Ravens extended a helping hand for the holidays on Monday.

Baltimore Raven Holds Turkey Drive To Help Families In Need

A member of the Baltimore Ravens extended a helping hand for the holidays on Monday.

Baltimore Raven Holds Turkey Drive To Help Families In Need

A member of the Baltimore Ravens extended a helping hand for the holidays on Monday.

Riley Reiff has been a bulwark at left tackle for Vikings

FILE- Tis Oct. 22, 2017, file photo shows Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Riley Reiff getting set for a play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Minneapolis. There's no change for the Minnesota Vikings this season that has made more of an impact than the addition of left tackle Reiff. The Vikings visit Detroit on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, with Reiff headed to face his old team the Lions. (AP Photo/Jim Mone. File)

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