John Urshel: NFL Player Turned Mathematician

Far too often, students feel the need to choose between their passions when it comes to deciding their future. Basketball or singing? Theater or history? Football or math?


What if they could do it all?


Cue John Urshel: Math professor, Ph.D. recipient, and former pro football player for the Baltimore Ravens.


Learn about the trials and successes of pursuing a love for both sport and academics in our biography on John Ershel- and get inspired to forge your own path.


Photos courtesy of SI and UPI.

john urschel biography

The Ultimate Mathlete

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Urshel always loved math and science. He quickly grew bored of the engineering camps he would attend over the summer with other kids his age, frustrated that he wasn’t learning anything new or being challenged.


Luckily, Urshel’s father was working towards a Master’s degree at the University of Buffalo- and they happened to share the same name. So the summer before entering eighth grade, he was able to use his dad’s student ID to sit in on a college business calculus course, and loved it so much that he was eventually able to help his classmates with their homework.


Urshel graduated from high school in 2009, after excelling in both academics and football. He went on to attend Pennslyvania State University, where he earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mathematics within four years, all while playing college football as a linebacker.


“I was simultaneously falling in love with, you know, math as an actual career, taking all of these college math classes,” he told NPR, “while also trying to be the best football player I could be.”


On top of earning a 4.0 in both degree programs, Urshel was named the recipient of many awards at Penn State for his work both on and off the field- and even taught two math courses while being a starter on the football team.


John Urschel: Mathematician and NFL Player

After earning his Master’s degree, Urschel was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the NFL draft in 2014. After his first season playing professionally, Urschel decided to apply to the doctoral program at MIT to earn his Ph.D. in math, becoming a full-time student in the offseason.


Once the NFL started up again in the fall, Urschel had to juggle his full-time, pro athlete career (and the constant games, workouts, and traveling that come with it) with a competitive academic program that was unable to make adjustments to the courseload, no matter what the student’s side-hustle may be. He worked out a schedule that allowed him to do both, spending the night after a game and his Mondays off to complete his Probability Theory coursework remotely. Despite only attending one day in person during the entire course, Urshel finished that class with one of the highest scores.


After playing in the NFL for three years, he retired in 2017 to focus on his PhD. full-time.


Tackling Math at MIT

Today, Urshel is an assistant professor at MIT Math. After completing his Ph.D. in 2021, he became a Harvard Junior Fellow and focused his research on both Matrix and Numerical Analysis, on top of plenty of student outreach and diversity advocation.


Not to give up his love of football, Urshel served on the College Football Playoff selection committee for three years after retirement and continues to watch at home.


“It’s really important, if you like something and you do want to be good at it, to be critical of yourself,” he said to NPR, “you should only be critical of yourself and hard on yourself compared to your previous self.”


Find out more about Urshel’s research.

Learn about Urshel’s work to diversify math.

Read an excerpt from Urshel’s autobiography, Mind and Matter.