John Urschel is a mathematician who spends plenty of time alone in a room with his work. But before that, he played pro football for the Baltimore Ravens. One might think the two careers have nothing to do with each other, but Urschel has a different perspective. He shares his humble opinion on how playing sports taught him valuable lessons he applied both on the field and in the classroom.
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You could say that John Urschel has made it to the top of his profession, except he had two professions, and they appeared to have nothing to do with the other.
Urschel played pro football for the Baltimore Ravens. He then began a Ph.D. program at MIT in mathematics, where he has published several peer-reviewed articles.
Urschel retired from football in 2017 and tonight shares His Humble Opinion on how what he learned on the field now helps him in the classroom.
A Life in Math and Football": When I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, I spent a lot of time alone.
It wasn't easy for me to make friends. I was awkward, bigger than everyone else, and I didn't know how to talk to the other kids. I was happiest by myself, doing math puzzles or playing video games.
Then, when I got to middle school, I joined lacrosse and soccer teams. I wanted to play football, but we couldn't find a helmet that fit. I didn't do it because I was some great athletic talent. In fact, I wasn't. I was overweight and out of shape. But I was seriously competitive, and I loved playing games.
I loved winning, and, even more than that, I hated losing. That had been true when I was a child playing "Monopoly" with my mother, but it became especially clear when I was playing sports.
What I hadn't expected, though, was how much I loved being part of a team and how much I learned from it, especially when I joined the football team in high school.
I had to learn how to communicate better. I had to learn when to take the lead on the field and in the locker room, and when to step back and give my support. I had to learn how to accept instruction and criticism from coaches. And there was a lot of it.
I had to work hard, because, if I didn't, I wouldn't be letting my teammates down. Don't get me wrong. I didn't always like the guys I was playing with. That didn't matter, though. We were in it together.
I am convinced that every kid would benefit from being part of a team, not because of what playing team sports did for me as a football player, but because of what it did for me as a mathematician.
It might seem like being a mathematician is a solitary pursuit. It's true, I spend a lot of time in a room by myself. But what I didn't expect is that I would also spend a lot of time working with other mathematicians, in other words, being on a team.
It may sound crazy, but playing football helped me write my first research paper on the Sun-Jupiter-asteroid three-body problem. It took diligence and learning how to deal with feedback.
People spend years in classrooms trying to gain the skills that will help them succeed, but some of the most important skills, I believe, are best learned on a field.