This kind of upends the traditional high school narrative
March 23, 2015 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Mathematican John Urschel has coauthored (along with colleagues at Penn State and Tufts) a paper on computing the Fiedler vector of graph Laplacians that has recently been accepted by the Journal of Computational Mathematics. He will also be playing on the Baltimore Ravens offensive line next September.

John Urschel is not the first serious mathematician to play in the NFL, and he is arguably not the first to play for his franchise. Dr. Frank Ryan was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns during the 1960s. He got his Ph.D. from Rice University; a PDF of his dissertation is available online. He lectured in the mornings, played football in the afternoons, and also conducted research in complex analysis. The Cleveland Browns later moved (or not -- it's sort of complicated) to Baltimore and became the Ravens.
posted by vogon_poet (29 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
what is it about confounding stereotypes that is so satisfying?
posted by C.A.S. at 5:51 AM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Urschel's essay on why he plays football despite the risk of brain injury, linked from the NPR.org post, is also worth reading.
posted by eugenen at 6:09 AM on March 23, 2015 [9 favorites]


vogon_poet:
"The Cleveland Browns later moved (or not -- it's sort of complicated) to Baltimore and became the Ravens."
It's not complicated at all. Art Modell sneaked into every Browns player's room one night and murdered them in their sleep. He then hired a bunch of lookalikes and gave them the old players' identities, created a football team in Baltimore called the Ravens and filled its rosters with these lookalikes. The Cleveland Browns died that night and have never existed since. You may have heard things about some other team recently calling itself the Browns, but it's kind of like Highlander 2.
posted by charred husk at 6:09 AM on March 23, 2015 [16 favorites]


I know what a few of those words mean. Like, "football".
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:14 AM on March 23, 2015


Thank you Eugenen for posting that link - i was going to write a comment that it will be a shame to lose his intellectual prowess after all the concussions he receives. Odd that he writes about the psychological addiction he has to contact sports, and in the same breath talks about alternatives that HAVE to have a lower concussion rate than pro-football (i have no sources on that, so please correct me if i'm wrong) - but as I understand it the main goal is not to get hit in the head with wrestling and kickboxing.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:19 AM on March 23, 2015


eugenen:
"Urschel's essay on why he plays football despite the risk of brain injury, linked from the NPR.org post, is also worth reading."
Yeah, it is. Even if it is just anecdotal to the football debate it is an interesting perspective.
posted by charred husk at 6:19 AM on March 23, 2015


Damn. What's next, famous guitarists becoming missile defense experts and astrophysicists?
posted by TedW at 6:36 AM on March 23, 2015 [11 favorites]


Or bongo players even.
posted by fraxil at 6:40 AM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


He's a fascinating, well-spoken, and remarkably self aware gentleman. +1 to his essay on why he keeps playing football.
posted by dylanjames at 6:57 AM on March 23, 2015


He also wrote this vague but suggestive article about D1 football players' academic majors.

In the past, I would have argued that the smartest player in pro sports was Craig Breslow, who went to Yale and studied biochemistry, but I think Urschel has him beat. He could probably drop out of the NFL and easily get accepted to a good PhD program.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:00 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Does anyone know how to see other articles he's written for The Players' Tribue? When I click the link (http://www.theplayerstribune.com/author/jurschel/) at the bottom of the articles linked to by eugenen and vogon_poet, I just get redirected to The Players' Tribune homepage instead of what I imagine should be a list of articles he's authored.
posted by noneuclidean at 7:38 AM on March 23, 2015


This is no surprise, but he's got the highest Wonderlic score of the 2014 draft by a 5 point margin.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:57 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


alternatives that HAVE to have a lower concussion rate than pro-football (i have no sources on that, so please correct me if i'm wrong) - but as I understand it the main goal is not to get hit in the head with wrestling and kickboxing.

The goal is not to get hit...but the goal is also to hit the opponent. Often in the head. There is significant and comparable risk of concussion in all three sports, though I'd place wrestling a step below the other two. Specifically, I have not reviewed the research with this specifically in mind but I would definitely NOT say that kickboxing has to have a lower concussion rate than football at the elite level. I mean, boxing literally has an entire neurodegenerative disease named after it.

This, from his essay on why he plays, really resonates: "When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around." People say this about me. Lifting weights helps a little, but wrestling, judo, and kickboxing are what really scratch the itch.
posted by daveliepmann at 8:13 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the clarification daveliepmann - i suppose my mindset (and a completely ignorant one at that) was that with kick boxing there are less full out and out punches to the face - with more body work compared to regular boxing.

I'll stop my derail on concussion rates in various contact sports now.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2015


As I've said here before, "Of course he's an offensive lineman, they're all nerds."
posted by Mick at 9:22 AM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Urschel's essay on why he plays football despite the risk of brain injury, linked from the NPR.org post, is also worth reading."

Yeah, it is. Even if it is just anecdotal to the football debate it is an interesting perspective.


Also kind of sad. He more or less says that he wishes he could quit, but he doesn't feel able to. Addiction is right.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:16 AM on March 23, 2015


he plays football despite the risk of brain injury
If he does suffer brain injury he'll still be employable as a statistician for a think tank.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:42 AM on March 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


Between him and Kliuwell, we've got to stop this, because I don't know if I can handle the inversion of paradigms. As above, so below or something... Stop being cool, jocks. (and stop being assholes, you nerd guys in silicon valley).
posted by symbioid at 10:53 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


This guy reminds me of what Michael Lewis said he learned after writing both Moneyball and The Blind Side. Despite his assumptions, he learned that most footballers were fairly bright - it was impossible to play the game, learn a system, remember plays without being smart.

Baseball players, on the other hand......

said as a baseball fan :)
posted by C.A.S. at 11:03 AM on March 23, 2015


Also kind of sad. He more or less says that he wishes he could quit, but he doesn't feel able to. Addiction is right.

That's not what I read him saying. He's saying that it's something he loves.

What you're saying sounds like a form of a common reaction we repeatedly see in discussions about combat sports and extreme hobbies: "I don't like X and X is risky, therefore nobody should do X." Not everybody lives like that. (You probably don't live like that.) Contact sports are risky, but they're tremendous fun and they make some of us feel alive. Just because you don't want to play doesn't mean it's tragic that we do.

Furthermore, he's an elite athlete. Elite athletics involves a significant amount of sacrificing health for performance; do you have similar pity for Kerri Strug and her ankle-shattering, gold-winning vault, or Dan Osman speed-free climbing a sheer rock face, or Ronda Rousey taking punches to the head? They want to be the best, to do amazing things, not to minimize lifetime risks. Let him make his own risk-reward calculation without condescending.

(Anyway, we don't know how many concussions Urschel has had. There's a difference between playing football and playing football immediately after a concussion, or playing football after a couple significant concussions. )
posted by daveliepmann at 11:15 AM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's also a big difference playing on the line. While you hit and are hit every play, you are not as exposed to being blind-sided or bell-rung the way the backfield players are. More cumulative trauma but fewer catastrophic incidents...
posted by MattD at 11:18 AM on March 23, 2015


Of course he's an offensive lineman, they're all nerds.

he learned that most footballers were fairly bright - it was impossible to play the game, learn a system, remember plays without being smart

I don't really follow football but I have heard a number of times that OL positions are among the most complex and tend to attract/require fast-thinking and intellectually-oriented players.
posted by atoxyl at 11:22 AM on March 23, 2015


daveliepmann, I find it ironic that in calling what I am doing "condescending," you are in turn condescending to me, as I see it. I am far from a professional, but I take part in a fairly dangerous "combat sport" activity on a regular basis, and have a few scars to prove it.

It's very easy and comforting to take the position you do. However, when Urschel himself uses the word "addicted" (for lack of a better word, indeed), and both begins and ends his short statement by stating outright that he envies Chris Borland for being able to walk away from the game, I don't see how my reading is either condescending or off the mark.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2015


I'm sorry if I came across as condescending. I feel strongly about this because I, too, feel addicted to contact sports.

He uses the word "addicted" precisely once, referring not to football but to the "feeling" that he gets from contact sports generally. And correct me if I'm wrong, but the essay seems to have been penned specifically in reference to Chris Borland taking some heat for quitting the game. So I read the references to Borland to be about that, not about him feeling existentially condemned to play the game.

My question to you above was serious, not rhetorical, because I'm genuinely confused. Do you feel sad for Ronda, seeing as she competed (as her accomplished and demanding mother did) on a busted knee and I'm sure takes many shots to the head during training? Do you feel addicted to your sport, and if so, do you feel sad for yourself?
posted by daveliepmann at 12:16 PM on March 23, 2015


i was going to write a comment that it will be a shame to lose his intellectual prowess after all the concussions he receives.

What a horrible thing to say. There are people all over the world who put their bodies at risk for reasons ranging from self-entertainment to giant leaps for mankind. Now I'm not saying that he's putting his body at risk to learn more about space, but he loves what he does.

Take that away, and he may not want to think about mathematics anymore. Saying that he will lose "intellectual prowess" after all his concussions is almost like a curse on him.

He didn't just *start* playing football a few seconds ago. He's been playing for years. He must be doing something right, and he should be free to engage in that without comments about how he's going to go dumb because someone hit his head.


Contact sports are risky, but they're tremendous fun and they make some of us feel alive. Just because you don't want to play doesn't mean it's tragic that we do.

Thats a great summary of sentiment sometimes on here (thanks, daveliepmann) . And its not just related to contact sports.

Let this guy live the way he wants to. I know it may seem funny or snarky to just slam someone for doing something YOU don't want to do, but how about you let this dude live the life he wants without saying things that would make him sad if he read it here.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:26 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


He uses the word "addicted" precisely once

It is a very short piece. How many times would he have to use it for it to be significant?

And correct me if I'm wrong, but the essay seems to have been penned specifically in reference to Chris Borland taking some heat for quitting the game. So I read the references to Borland to be about that, not about him feeling existentially condemned to play the game.

I don't see how this changes anything. He didn't say, "I envy him for quitting and taking heat for it," nor did he say, "he shouldn't be taking heat for quitting," he said he envied him for being able to walk away.

My question to you above was serious, not rhetorical, because I'm genuinely confused. Do you feel sad for Ronda, seeing as she competed (as her accomplished and demanding mother did) on a busted knee and I'm sure takes many shots to the head during training? Do you feel addicted to your sport, and if so, do you feel sad for yourself?

Did Ronda ever imply that she envies people who don't have to compete on "busted" knees? Doubtful. I do no feel addicted to my sport. I do, however, sometimes feel addicted to other things I think are, on balance, not very good for me, and I do sometimes feel sad about that for myself, yes.

I didn't say that his choice to play football was tragic or anything of the sort, remember. All I said was that the essay was "kind of sad," because it seemed to me (and still seems) like it betrays that he know what he is doing may ultimately be unhealthy (though that is certainly not assured) but is so into it that he doesn't feel capable of quitting, even if he seems to know intellectually that he probably should if he wants to be safe. Seems like he's outing himself as a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but I'm certainly not condemning him for that.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:17 PM on March 23, 2015


I think his decision is stupid, but he's clearly smarter than me, which means my heuristic for evaluating decisions must be stupid.

... which implies that this self-criticism must be stupid, so yeah: it's a bad decision! But he's clearly smarter than me ...
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:23 PM on March 23, 2015


atoxyl: "I don't really follow football but I have heard a number of times that OL positions are among the most complex and tend to attract/require fast-thinking and intellectually-oriented players."

Well, defensive line is mostly just 'push guy over, then push guy with ball over'. And I guess kickers are mostly 'I kick the ball I cash the check."

So in contrast to that, offensive linemen are required to memorize a set of plays, and whether to push defensive linemen left or right or back. Playbooks are large, and they vary by team and time. And in a no huddle offense, the linemen are memorizing a series of plays. So in that sense, they're really not so fast-thinking as much as well read.

But apparently their Wonderlic scores are higher. Maybe they just have a lot of time to think deep thoughts standing on the scrimmage line waiting for the ball to snap.
posted by pwnguin at 12:01 AM on March 24, 2015


charred husk: vogon_poet:
"The Cleveland Browns later moved (or not -- it's sort of complicated) to Baltimore and became the Ravens."
It's not complicated at all. Art Modell sneaked into every Browns player's room one night and murdered them in their sleep. He then hired a bunch of lookalikes and gave them the old players' identities, created a football team in Baltimore called the Ravens and filled its rosters with these lookalikes. The Cleveland Browns died that night and have never existed since. You may have heard things about some other team recently calling itself the Browns, but it's kind of like Highlander 2.
Well, we agree that the Cleveland Browns don't play football.

The specifics are mere moot points.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:23 AM on March 24, 2015


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