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John Urschel, Mathematician/Athelete

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

This 2019 biography was written by Urschel and his wife.

Meet Dr. John Urschel

Receiving his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


Numerical analysis, graph theory, and data science/machine learning


Played football for Penn State and the Baltimore Ravens

John Urschel gets a charge out of solving puzzles. As a toddler he worked to solve the puzzle of where his mother hid the cookies and birthday presents. To keep him out of trouble, she started leaving workbooks around the house. John’s first grade teacher wanted to put him back a year. She thought he was slow. But testing showed John was far advanced. They moved him forward a year instead.

At age 13, John took a calculus class for business majors at the local college. He loved it. Calculus was like a “secret code.” It explained the paths of planets around the sun and the spin of a football.

Football charged up John too. He joined his high school team as a freshman. He learned quickly how to play. Football gave John confidence that he could bag his goals if he worked hard.

"So often people want to divide the world into two. Matter and energy. Wave and particle. Athlete and mathematician. Why can't something (or someone) be both?"

All his hard work paid off. He got a full football scholarship to Penn State University. At Penn State he could play football AND study math. So, he did. He was rewarded for his work in math with the top prize and carried the math department banner in the graduation ceremony. He was rewarded in football by being recruited into the NFL and played for the Baltimore Ravens.

John loved playing football and loved his team. But he quit after two years for two reasons. First, he wanted to focus on getting his PhD in math from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Second, he was worried about studies of football players brains. Concussions seem to be causing CTE, a brain disease.

John Urschel is living proof that you can be a professional athlete and a professional mathematician.

Read these books if you get a charge out of solving puzzles . . .


"Fun pictograms and infographics about extreme sports make learning about math topics such as ratios, area, percentages, averages, and angles easy and fun. In this book, readers are presented with scenarios in a number of extreme sports and use their mathematical skills while skyrunning, BASE jumping, ziplining, ice climbing, and racing motocross. Math puzzles and exercises help children build confidence in their math skills"

Hillary Koll has lots of fun math books. Check them out at her Amazon author page.


by Jenn Larson

This awesome logic puzzles for kids book includes:

  • 100 Brain-building games―Solve logic grids, crosswords, matchstick puzzles, and more while honing critical thinking.

  • Easy instructions―Get brief descriptions of what you’ll learn, plus kid-friendly information at the beginning of every chapter.

  • Level up―Take your skills to the next level with every brain game you beat―each activity in this logic puzzles for kids book increases in difficulty from easy to hard to up your game!


by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas

This is not a book written for kids. But kids can learn a lot from reading it. Some of the math is hard to understand. You are allowed to skim over those parts. But anybody can understand and be inspired by the story of John Urshel's life on the football field and in the field of mathematics.

. . . and visit these websites.


Mathcounts: Q and A with John Urschel

More information about Mathcounts (This is a great math competition for students in grade 6 - 8)

John Urschel Math Whiz: Real Sports Full Segment (Note: Shortly after this interview John stopped playing football because of fear about CTE, a brain disease seen in football players. He is pursuing his PhD in math at MIT.)

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