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Line play and linear algebra – ‘Mind and Matter’

May 15, 2019
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If I were to tell you that someone was a mathematician, you’d have some pretty specific ideas about who that person was. If were to tell you that someone was a football player, you’d have some pretty specific ideas about who that person was as well. And you probably wouldn’t think that there would be a lot of overlap in that particular Venn diagram.

But then you encounter someone like John Urschel and you’re forced to reconsider your preconceived notions … because he has achieved great heights in both arenas.

His new book “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football” (Penguin Press, $27) explores the seeming disparity between Urschel’s passions. Along with his co-author (and partner) Louisa Thomas, Urschel walks readers along the parallel paths through which he pursued two dreams that were seemingly at odds. Few athletes ever approach the pinnacle of their sport. Few academics ever approach the pinnacle of their field. John Urschel – still a month away from his 28th birthday as of this writing – has done both.

John Urschel’s tremendous gifts were apparent from a young age. While his intellectual precocity began with a love of puzzles, it wasn’t long before his surgeon father was steering him toward the challenges of advanced mathematics. At just 13, he was auditing a college-level calculus course and more than holding his own. It seemed as though his would be a life of the mind.

But football was also part of the picture. It was there that John discovered the camaraderie of team sports, as well as the discipline that time on the gridiron could instill. An imposing physical presence, Urschel worked his way into becoming a top-tier player at his Buffalo high school, an offensive lineman who flashed the potential to play at the next level.

Urschel would find a home for his paired passions at Penn State. He was a scholarship player on the football team, but he was far from the lip-service “student-athlete” one often finds at the Division I level. Instead, he was constantly challenging himself in the classroom as well as on the gridiron, taking advantage of a redshirt year and some supportive mentors to wind up with not just a bachelor’s, but a master’s degree in mathematics even as he worked his way up to becoming an All-Big 10 selection as an offensive guard.

But it didn’t stop there.

A solid performance at the NFL Combine led to Urschel’s being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. He signed with Baltimore and made the team, but also chose to continue his mathematical studies, landing in a PhD program at MIT.

And so, just like he’d been doing since high school, he simply … did both. The people in either orbit tended to find Urschel’s “other” interest a bit odd, but his seeming eccentricities were never held against him – his professors and collaborators supported his playing career, while his coaches and teammates supported his academic pursuits.

Urschel retired from the NFL after three seasons, choosing to finally devote himself fully to his dream of becoming a mathematician.

“Mind and Matter” is a fascinating read. We don’t often come across Renaissance men like this anymore, people who can reach the highest levels in fields both physical and intellectual. NFL lineman, math PhD candidate – either of those achievements would put someone in rarefied air. But to manage both? It’s almost inconceivable.

And yet, even with all that he has accomplished, there’s a real sense of humility to John Urschel. One gets the impression that he takes none of this for granted and has worked tremendously hard at every stop along the way. His is a journey that is unique, a powerful paean to possibility.

A memoir such as this could easily come off as self-congratulatory, but there’s a healthy sense of perspective here. And Urschel’s voice feels genuine and authentic – one assumes that much of that is thanks to his co-author; Thomas brings to the table not only her own considerable writerly gifts, but also a depth of understanding regarding Urschel’s history and character.

The dual narrative threads make for an engaging storytelling device. By separating the two paths – math and football – we’re given a compelling look at their similarities as well as their differences. However, there’s also enough overlap to get a sense of one passion’s influence on the other, allowing us a wonderful sense of how they connect.

(Oh, and rest assured – Urschel goes DEEP on the math. He delves into the specifics, talking about particular areas of interest and dishing out a little math history to boot. It’s unapologetic in its wonkiness and delightfully dense – and that’s with Urschel undoubtedly dialing it back for the benefit of those of us who aren’t pursuing our PhDs at MIT.)

“Mind and Matter” is the tale of one man’s willingness to do whatever it took to maintain his paired passions – a remarkable feat that combined immense intellect, incredible strength and endless reserves of determination and raw willpower. Sports books like this one don’t come along every day. Then again, individuals like John Urschel don’t come along every day either. Read this book and you’ll understand just how rare they are.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 May 2019 14:44

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