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Former Raven John Urschel On Giving Up NFL For Math, His 'True Love'

May 21, 2019
On Day 3 of the 2014 NFL Draft, John Urschel received a call from then-Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome informing him that Baltimore would be selecting him in the fifth round. But Newsome had another question for Urschel: Was he fully committed to playing football?

Urschel had recently graduated from Penn State with a bachelor's degree in math -- he now has a master's in the field as well -- and there were concerns that Urschel had more of a love for math than he did football.

"It's such an interesting thing because at the time I really I took it as a slight and I really wanted to show people I truly love both of these things," Urschel said on Glenn Clark Radio May 15. "Football is extremely important to me. But I have to say in hindsight, I understand it because it turns out if you talked to me when I was entering the draft, I couldn't have imagined that three or four years later that math really would have dwarfed football in terms of my true love."

Urschel spent three seasons with the Ravens, starting 13 games from 2014-2016 before announcing his retirement from the NFL at age 26 to pursue a doctorate in mathematics at MIT. Urschel is set to graduate next spring and has recently released a book, "Mind and Matter," which explores his love of football and math. He said the book is written in part to encourage young people to not be afraid to pursue their interests.

"Talking to young people who may be listening, it's a great thing to have multiple interests, to be a well-rounded person, to not just put all of your eggs into this one basket," Urschel said. "It's OK to be interested in multiple things. Life is short and you should really make sure you do things that you enjoy, and don't shut something out based on societal norms."

Two days prior to Urschel's retirement in 2017, the now-famous study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had been published in Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that 110 of 111 brains of ex-NFL players had signs of the disease. Urschel was portrayed as a having left the NFL because of the study, but it's not that simple, he said.

"A lot of media outlets really wanted to paint a very binary cause-and-effect picture," he said. "This is not how decisions are usually made, at least especially for me. A lot of things are involved."

Urschel did suffer one concussion during his career, which left him unable to do high-level math for months afterward. He credited the NFL with attempting to make the game safer, but in the end, football is inherently dangerous no matter what changes are made, he said.

"I think there has to an acceptance of the fundamental structure of the sport and it's not just football but many different sports," he said. "But at the same time, I think that football is doing a lot of different things to sort of keep the fundamental structure and keep the game, the game. And also make the game safer. 

"I have to say when I was in the league every single year the NFL was doing things, maybe little things here and there to try to make the game a little safer than it was the previous year."

In fact, if he didn't have math, Urschel would almost certainly still be playing football, he said. 

"It was an amazing game. It was a tough decision for me to make," he said. "Of course, I loved football and I enjoyed football. I think in many ways I miss things about football, but I'm not actively missing football. I'm not a person to sort of look back and reminisce. I'm a person to look forward."

For more from Urschel, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox