- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Don’t limit yourselves to the stereotypes that the media has created for you. Don’t listen to what the outside world tells you football players are supposed to do. Aspire to something greater.
-- John Urschel, July 25, Big Ten kickoff luncheon
The term student-athlete has balance in lettering -- seven letters to each word -- but not much else, especially when it comes to big-time college football. Most of the men who fall under the NCAA-driven label are, in reality, more athletes than students, even if they try to be both. They're more about the moment or the near future than the long term. Their wish list includes an NFL contract, not a Ph.D certificate.
Penn State guard John Urschel arguably tips the scale the other way.
Although he's a first-team All-Big Ten lineman for the Nittany Lions, his accomplishments as a student outweigh those as an athlete. He's a first-team Academic All-American and a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who carries a 4.0 grade-point average, earned his mathematics degree in three years, already completed a master's in math and is working toward another master's. Last spring, Urschel had a paper entitled "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" published in the journal, Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy.
He taught an undergraduate math class (MATH 041, trigonometry and analytic geometry) this spring, won the Big Ten Medal of Honor in June, and enters his senior season as a leading candidate for the William V. Campbell Trophy, better known as the Academic Heisman.
"John is one of the more intelligent guys I’ve ever been around," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "He's got it all."
Speaking on behalf of the players at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon, Urschel eloquently outlined four things he wished he had been told before he started his college football career. They were: master your craft on the field, make a mark in the community, help young players along their journey and prepare for the day when your football career ends.
"Because our careers are so short and our lives hopefully long," Urschel told a large, captive audience at the Hilton Chicago, "planning and preparing for life without football is the most important of these four, and also the easiest to neglect."
Urschel never has neglected his future. While he might have wished for a primer on the four-point path to success when he arrived in State College, he has followed it every step of the way.
Bryce Hopkins knew Urschel had unique intellect when he met Urschel on the junior-varsity team at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Hopkins, then a sophomore, played center for the jayvee, while Urschel, a freshman, occupied a tackle spot. Urschel's mind actually worked to his detriment early in his career as he tended to overthink things rather than just reacting to them.
He had another problem, too.
"He was such a nice guy and had difficulty separating his off-the-field persona from his on-field persona," said Hopkins, who later coached Urschel on the Canisius varsity squad. "He would pancake a kid, and as soon as he was finished pancaking him, he would help the kid up. Our coach was like, 'John, go onto the next play, don't worry about it.'
"Once John got up to the varsity level and he saw how quick and how athletic he was, he was able to use his intellect to read a defense and identify the techniques defensive linemen are using, identify things like blitzing tendencies. It allowed him to go to the next level."
Urschel had a relatively late start to his football career and didn't expect to have a long-term future in the game. He blossomed late in his high school career and seemed ticketed for Princeton before Penn State extended a scholarship offer after his senior season, weeks before signing day.
"There were some better academic schools," Urschel said, "but I would have been hard-pressed to find a better balance of academics and athletics, to be honest. Football's something I take very seriously, and I told my parents that there would be time for me to go to a Princeton or a Stanford or an MIT for graduate work.
"That is in my future. After football, I'll go back to academics."
That time will come after Urschel's football career, which could last a while. He started applying his smarts to the game at Canisius. Hopkins recalls Urschel telling the coaching staff to switch into different run plays because the defensive tackles were playing 2-technique rather than 1-technique.
O'Brien has been around bright offensive linemen in the NFL -- Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins, to name a few -- and subscribes to the notion that the game's smartest players tend to play in the front five.
"There are a lot of things that happen up front in football now, where you have to communicate really fast and clearly," he said. " A lot of times what I’ve found in football is if a guy’s that smart -- and [Urschel] is a brilliant guy -- usually that doesn't correlate to being an instinctive, smart football player. It just doesn’t come as easily. That's not the case with John. He understands football just as well as he understands math."
Urschel's Twitter handle, not surprisingly, is @mathmeetsfball. But he's not all above the neck.
Few players have bought into Penn State's transformative strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald more than Urschel, who squats 500 pounds and bench-presses more than 400.
"He might be our strongest player overall," O'Brien said.
The coach adds, "He's got a great shot to play pro football."
The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Urschel, who grew up admiring former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, expects to continue his career at the pro level. But he remains humble about his football success, joking during a recent ESPN.com chat with fans that he might have an easier path to the CFL because he was born in Winnipeg and carries dual citizenship.
Urschel is more confident about his future in academics -- Princeton and MIT definitely are on his radar -- and for good reason.
"It’s not very common for a Master's student to publish a paper," said Ludmil Zikatanov, a mathematics professor at Penn State who advises Urschel. "That shows he's very good. I don’t think he’s typical. He’s better than most. Publishing a paper based on your thesis is an excellent achievement."
Zikatanov is working with Urschel to get another paper published, this time on applications of graph theory. Urschel spent part of his summer working with undergrads on the basics of graph theory, helping them prepare for graduate research.
See if you can spot the All-Big Ten offensive lineman among Penn State's roster of mathematics grad students.
"He's just a guy who has talent in math and apparently talent in football," Zikatanov said. "This not a common quality, but I wouldn't say I was very surprised. He's a very capable man. I can see him defending his Ph.D. I’m not going to say it's easy, but he would be able to do that. I know that he wants to play for the NFL and then continue his studies. I think he will be successful in studying math after that.
"Whether he's in academia or industry, he's just a good mathematician."
Urschel is more than a good student-athlete. He strikes the balance so many strive for but can't reach for various reasons, many outside of their own control. The math whiz has solved the student-athlete equation.
"You can’t tell me when an NFL general manager sits down with him at the combine or during pre-draft meetings, they're not going to fall in love with a guy who's so smart, such a great character," Hopkins said. "Some NFL GM is going to want to make him the face of the franchise."
He's certainly one of the faces of Penn State, and the Big Ten, as he gears up for his final college season.
"In each of us lies great talent that extends far beyond our exploits on the gridiron," Urschel said to conclude his speech in Chicago. "Our whole is much more than the sum of our physical parts, and I have no doubt that this generation of football players, like those who have come before us, and those who will come after us, will make contributions to this world that far exceeds the limit of the football field."