Campus Life

Heard on Campus: John Urschel at the Penn State Forum

Mathematician and retired professional football player John Urschel was the guest speaker at the Penn State Forum Speaker Series held Feb. 20 at the Nittany Lion Inn. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

“The truth is I don’t know what my life would look like if I had continued to play [football]. I can’t know. I don’t know if I would have gotten injured in the first game or earned a new contract for millions of dollars. I don’t even know if my retirement will lead to greater mathematical discoveries, or a longer, healthier life. What I do know is that I’m doing what I love, and that I made the best decision for me. …

“There’s a lot that I cannot know. I can’t see the future. Life is nonlinear. But what I do know is that I’m so excited for what comes next.”

— John Urschel, a mathematician and retired professional football player, presented "Order and Chaos" at the Penn State Forum on Feb. 20 at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Urschel played college football at Penn State before being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Urschel, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at Penn State, played three seasons in Baltimore before retiring from the NFL in August 2017 to focus full time on earning his doctorate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Urschel talked about his love for both football and math, but said that his passion for math is what drives him — and is literally the first thing he wants to do when he wakes up in the morning. That passion and desire to excel at math grew to new proportions during his years at Penn State.  

“What really helped was that every morning when I woke up, I was so excited to keep working on that math problem I was working on last night, to go to practice, to get better, to improve,” Urschel said. “Sometimes I remember I’d be working on something at night and I would just have to get in bed and close my eyes really tight and think, ‘John, if you can go to sleep right now, this moment, you’ll wake up that much sooner and you can get right back at it.’”

A first-team All-Big Ten guard and a first-team Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-American while at Penn State, Urschel was the recipient of the 2013 Senior CLASS Award, awarded to student-athletes who excel in the areas of community, classroom, character and competition. He also was awarded the William V. Campbell Trophy, sometimes referred to as the “academic Heisman,” and the James E. Sullivan award, presented to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete. In 2017, he was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in science.

Urschel is a recipient of MIT’s prestigious Dean of Science Fellowship and is the author of numerous papers published in leading journals, on subjects ranging from machine learning to spectral graph theory.

Launched in 1996, the Penn State Forum Speaker Series is designed to introduce the University community to noted leaders and policymakers in their respective fields. Open to the public, tickets are $21 for each event and include a buffet lunch, followed by remarks from the distinguished speaker. For more information about the series and a list of future speakers, visit

Last Updated February 20, 2018