Cameo with ​John Urschel

We talk to the Ravens guard and mathematician.

By Amy Mulvihill - December 2015

Cameo with ​John Urschel

We talk to the Ravens guard and mathematician.

By Amy Mulvihill - December 2015

Are people surprised to learn you have a master’s degree in mathematics?
I think my teammates aren’t really surprised. Football players are extremely intelligent, especially at the professional level. If you’re not, you don’t make it to this upper echelon. For the most part, they just respect it. It’s something I enjoy off the field and other people have different hobbies they enjoy. Mine happens to be mathematics.

Have you encountered any other Ravens of NFL players who are interested in math or science?
Uh, no, not necessarily to the degree that I am, though [Ravens linebacker] CJ [Mosley] does enjoy talking math with me sometimes, though I don’t think he has a math background. We talk about different cool math properties and things like that.

You recently published a paper titled “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians.” Translate.
In layman’s terms, I’ve come up with a more efficient way to compute a certain quantity, which has uses in unsupervised learning, which is a subset of artificial intelligence.

Do you have any other brainy hobbies?
I do aspire to be a ranked chess player. In the off-season I do a lot of kickboxing. When I’m done playing football, I’m going to try my hand at chessboxing.

Um, what?
So, the way it works is there are six rounds of chess, five rounds of boxing. If you knock the opponent out, you win. If you checkmate the opponent, you win. If the chess is a draw, then the boxing goes to decision.

Because you are as interested in intellectual pursuits as you are in physical ones, you’ve said that sustaining a head injury was one of your biggest fears. You got a concussion this summer in training camp. Did that cause you to reassess anything?
No, not at all. If anything, it was a little bit the opposite in that, my whole career, I really always thought that if I was playing football and I got knocked unconscious, I would stop playing, on the spot. And then I got knocked unconscious in training camp, and I missed football while I was [recovering]. I couldn’t wait to get back. One of the worst things I feared in football happened to me and I’m still playing. So no—I love playing football. This is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy doing math, but you’re only young once. I’m going to play football as long as I can.

You’ve said your mom is really concerned about head injuries. How’d she react to your concussion?
Like a typical mother: hysterical, trying to take care of me, just concerned.

But she supports you rededicating yourself to football?
Of course. I mean, as much as she can comfortably support me. At the end of the day, I’m a grown man. My decisions are my own.

Well, sure, but we all like to make our moms happy.
Yes, this is true.

You were born in Canada, grew up in Buffalo, went to Penn State, and now live in Owings Mills. How do you like it here?
I like Baltimore a lot. My favorite food spot is The Food Market. Mostly, I spend my time in Baltimore doing math in coffee shops. Like, my local Starbucks, all the ladies that work there know me by name. They know what I order every time. They don’t even really ask me. So that gives you a sense of how often I’m there just mathing it up. I take my laptop, a pad, pen, maybe a couple papers that I’ve printed off line, work on some research or do some reading. I’m staying very active mathematically.

I’ve also read that you live very simply, on about $25,000 a year and that you drive a used Nissan Versa.
For me, all the things I really enjoy in life are very, very inexpensive. There’s no point in me buying a big SUV. I wouldn’t get any enjoyment out of it. I don’t wear a lot of bling or gold chains. I’m not making it rain at the club. I enjoy playing football and doing math, and those things are pretty cheap.

Here’s what I don’t get about the Nissan Versa: You’re a big guy. How does that work?
It’s surprisingly spacious. Do not doubt it.

[Laughs] Okay! I’ll take your word for it.
If you’re looking for a new car, I’m just saying, you might want to consider it.

Can’t let you go without asking about the Ravens season. It’s off to a pretty rocky start. What will it take for things to gel?
The biggest thing is: do what we’ve got to do to win; every single person be accountable for their responsibilities—and that’s it. It’s a long NFL season. No one’s discouraged. No one’s packing it in. What I’m saying is the season is still early and there’s a lot of football left to play. And we’re a good football team.

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