John Urschel on Math and Football

Walter Isaacson sits down with John Urschel, a rising star who walked away from a lucrative football career in the NFL to pursue a doctorate in mathematics at MIT.

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WALTER ISAACSON: John, welcome to the show.

JOHN URSCHEL, MATHEMATICIAN: Thanks for having me.

ISAACSON: Math and football, what an amazing combination. Tell me about growing up, how you got into both of them. Let’s start with your mom.

URSCHEL: Yes, my mother she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. First in our family to go to college. Obviously —

ISAACSON: She loved puzzles.

URSCHEL: She loved puzzles. She loved problem-solving. She loved math. And this is something she really sort of pushed when I was a kid and

something she really sort of instilled in me, was always this sort of curiosity.

ISAACSON: And so she got you into math, right? And wanted you to become an engineer when you were a kid, right?

URSCHEL: Not just any engineer, an aerospace engineer.

ISAACSON: You had to be a rocket scientist?

URSCHEL: A rocket scientist. Nothing else would do.

ISAACSON: And then you got into football by looking at a photograph of your father?

URSCHEL: Yes, that’s true. My father played college football at the University of Alberta. And so, you know, growing up, I wanted to be like

my father in many ways and so.

ISAACSON: And he comes back into your life as you’re growing up and you start seeing more of him. Does he push you into football?

URSCHEL: I think he started to push me more and more. The more he saw me play, the more he thought, “Well you know, maybe he’s not so bad. Maybe

he’s pretty good. Maybe he can play college football. Maybe he can play pro football.”

ISAACSON: But he was also interested to read. He liked math as well. He wrote an inscription for you at one point in a book called QED which is a

great book. When you talk about math stripping away the dirtiness of nature, right?

URSCHEL: Right, to show the sort of beauty, the beauty of the world.

ISAACSON: I’ve heard you say or, you know read, that you feel that sometimes black kids don’t get a break when it comes to people believing

they can do things like math. Do you think there’s any discrimination there?

URSCHEL: I think there’s some truth to the fact that African-American kids in this country clearly are not getting the same opportunities with respect

to math as their counterparts. And, you know, I think there’s a reasonable way to sort of think about this.

If you look at say all the top American mathematicians and you look at sort of the sort of diversity of them, we have brilliant, brilliant young people

being born into all sort of different households, from all sorts of different socioeconomic backgrounds, whose talent is being lost and who

sort of is being failed by our education system.

ISAACSON: You’re at MIT. You’ve done work nearby at Harvard. You were recruited at Stanford. The math departments there, in those three

universities, and Princeton you’ve been thinking of going to. Take those four math departments, how many African-American professors are there in


URSCHEL: I’m going to say — I think I’m going to say zero.

ISAACSON: That’s correct.

URSCHEL: There may be one, but I don’t think there is. I could always be wrong. It’s a new year but yes, I think it might be zero.

ISAACSON: As a black mathematician, are you trying to create groups of black mathematicians that support each other? Or do you think that’s not a

good way to go?

URSCHEL: Personally, I don’t. I interact with mathematicians and I’m not more likely to interact with another African-American mathematician than

any other mathematician. But that’s sort of my view based on my upbringing, where I can say that I’ve been blessed to not ever feel

throughout my life, that the color of my skin or the household I grew up in has had any impact on my ability to do math. And not everyone can say


And I think it’s important that we have both types of mathematicians. Mathematicians who think it’s very important to bring us together, to help

sort of bring along the next generation of African-American mathematicians. And also, those of us who believe that there’s something powerful in just

being a mathematician and having sort of your race has nothing to do with it.

ISAACSON: The connection between loving mathematics and doing so well at it and loving football and doing so well, what are the common traits in

terms of persistence or working, you know, focus, being able to compartmentalize?

URSCHEL: I think the key thing that they have in common is that they do both reward persistence and determination and a sort of toughness. It’s a

decision that you’re going to keep working at something and you’re not going to give up. And this is something that I think they share in common.

Although they do have many differences.

One is a little more dangerous than the other. And also something, you know, in a little bit more seriousness, is that the concept of comfort with

failure is quite different in the two fields. For instance, in football, failure is an unacceptable thing that needs to be fixed immediately.

Whereas, in fields like mathematics and different areas of science, failure is a part of the process. Failure is sort of you know, you’ve attempted

something, it didn’t work and now you’ve learned something. And you know, if you’re uncomfortable with failure in mathematics, you aren’t going to

get very far.

ISAACSON: You go from Penn State, and you get drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, right? And you decide to both play for the Ravens and study at


URSCHEL: Yes. I’ve —

ISAACSON: Most players haven’t done that before.

URSCHEL: No, most players haven’t done that. I’ve made better decisions in my life. This was one where —

ISAACSON: And so you go to MIT for one semester and then you’d hit training camp as soon as the semester was over?

URSCHEL: Yes. Then I would go back to Baltimore. And the thing that was tough was that in the fall when I was in Baltimore, I was still sort of

signed up for classes at MIT. So I would send in assignments via correspondence.

ISAACSON: And about five or six years ago you had a concussion, right, playing for the Ravens? Was that right or?

URSCHEL: Perhaps three years ago.


URSCHEL: Three years ago.

ISAACSON: Is that when you began to think that maybe you should move away from football and focus more on math?

URSCHEL: Surprisingly not. Surprisingly not. I mean when this happened, you know, it was one of those things where this was quite annoying to me

because you have a concussion, you’re having trouble thinking, light sensitivity, a number of things. But for some reason, that wasn’t really

much of a wake-up call.

ISAACSON: So if that didn’t do it, what caused you to begin thinking about maybe this, you know, head injury, CTE, brain injuries, maybe I should move

away from football?

URSCHEL: Fatherhood is an amazing thing. So —

ISAACSON: So you’re married to my goddaughter Louisa Thomas, with whom you’re writing a book that will be out in May so —

URSCHEL: Yes, we should state we do have some affiliation.

ISAACSON: We have an affiliation.


ISAACSON: And Joana (ph) is your —

URSCHEL: Joana, yes, my daughter. And yes, something about fatherhood really makes you start thinking about longevity in a way that, you know, I

never thought about before and —

ISAACSON: Did you read that “New York Times” piece on CTE?

URSCHEL: I saw it, yes.

ISAACSON: And what do you think the NFL should be doing about brain injury?

URSCHEL: I think the NFL is sort of doing exactly what they should be. I think they’re — the one thing I noticed from the NFL is every year I was

in the league, they were taking steps to make the game safer with respect to head injuries than the previous year. And I don’t know what

changes they’ve made in college football because I haven’t been playing college football for a while but I hope that college football is sort of

taken —

ISAACSON: If you had a kid who wanted to play football, would you encourage him?

URSCHEL: I don’t think sort of — yes, if he wanted to play football, I would support him and yes, of course, I would let him play football. I

mean if he had no inkling towards one sport or another, I wouldn’t necessarily push him towards football. I can say like with certainty that

if I had a son, I don’t want him sort of playing pro football like I did. This is — I mean yes, you make a good living, but this not an easy life.

ISAACSON: Tell me your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s protests and what’s happened.

URSCHEL: Yes, it’s a divisive issue in the United States. Many times in history and even now, sort of often sports has this amazing power to unify

people. But it also has this amazing power to sort of be a microcosm for what is going on in the country. And, of course, this is something

extremely divisive and I don’t know what —

ISAACSON: Do you support him?

URSCHEL: Of course. I mean I support people’s right to protest. This is something that’s amazing about our country. In fact, this is something

that I love about our country is that as an American, you have the right to express your view if it doesn’t harm anyone. If it doesn’t hurt anyone,

you can express your view and you can be certain that, you know, you will be safe. You can decide to stand for the anthem or decide to not.

And you know, you aren’t in some sort of totalitarian regime where not standing for the anthem means serious, serious harm will come to you and

your family. And I think there’s something amazing about a country in which we can have a dialogue about these things, and that we’re in a

country where we have a choice.

ISAACSON: If you were playing for the Ravens this Sunday, what would you be thinking about on the question of whether you would take a knee?

URSCHEL: For me personally, I’ve always stood for the national anthem. I support the protest a thousand percent. I understand why this protest is

happening and I completely support my former NFL teammates and their ability to fight for this. But me, personally, when I — I don’t know how

to describe it but I feel this amazing feeling in my heart when I’m standing on the sideline and I hear sort of our national anthem, and to

just stand there with my hand over my chest, and it’s just something that’s very sort of powerful for me. I’m very proud to be in a country where I

have the choice to stand for the national anthem.

ISAACSON: Which also makes you proud to be in a country which allows some to take a knee.

URSCHEL: Exactly.

ISAACSON: Tell me now what you would be telling kids who want to go into mathematics, maybe want to go into football. What lessons have you learned

from all of what you’ve done?

URSCEL: I think the best lesson or the biggest sort of lesson I’ve learned is whatever it is you’re truly passionate about, whatever it is you want to

do, don’t be afraid to really, really put in the work to try to achieve your dreams. Because I believe that in general, if you have a good goal

that you’re working towards, sort of being dedicated to that craft and working towards that, this is a good quality. And even if you don’t

achieve whatever you’re working towards, good things tend to happen.

ISAACSON: There are very few people in this society who in some ways could be a healing symbol. Do you see any role that you can play in that for

inspiring symbol for young, black mathematicians or for football players or anybody?

URSCHEL: I think a healing symbol is sort of ambitious. But I do have hopes or aspirations to be an example among many of the things that you can

do if you set your mind to it. And to show that you know, you can achieve things in math and science, no matter your race, gender or socioeconomic


About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour interviews Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and José Andrés, chef and author of “We Fed an Island.” Walter Isaacson interviews John Urschel.