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From NFL Pro to MIT Prof

John Urschel left a pro football career to study math. Now he’s a college professor.
A smiling John Urschel in a football jersey in front of a backdrop showing math equations written on a blackboard.
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images Sport, © EvgeniyBobrov/; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a new math professor with an unusual background: He used to play in the National Football League (NFL). Former Baltimore Ravens guard John Urschel began teaching at MIT in the fall of 2023.

Urschel discovered his love for math as a kid, when he happily tackled the math and puzzle workbooks his mom gave him and, as an 8th grader, took a college math class. By the time he got to college, he was a talented football player but possibly even more gifted in math. After the NFL drafted him, in 2014, he decided to apply to MIT to get a high-level degree called a Ph.D. MIT admits very few applicants, but Urschel got in.

What do you do when you play for the NFL in Maryland and you’re admitted to school in Massachusetts? If you’re John Urschel, you find a way to make it work. For one year, Urschel continued to play pro football full time while taking his MIT classes online. And while he juggled both responsibilities, he was happiest when he was studying math. In 2017, at age 26, Urschel decided to retire from the NFL so that he could devote his time to what he loved the most. He earned his Ph.D. in 2021.

“[MIT] is my favorite place in the world,” Urschel told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Now an assistant professor, Urschel says he hopes to inspire young people to study math, science, and engineering. Sometimes he gives talks to kids and teens—and he knows he can serve as an example of what’s possible.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today as a mathematician if it wasn’t for a lot of specific people, a lot of different mathematicians deciding that I was worth their time,” Urschel told ESPN in 2020.

Fun Fact!

John Urschel and another man sit at an outdoor table and play chess in front of a storefront with a sign reading World Chess Hall of Fame.
Bill Greenblatt—AFP/Getty Images
John Urschel is one of many NFL players, past and present, who love the game of chess.

Life After Sports

You can’t play a sport at the elite level unless you’re among the very best. But some pros have continued to impress even after they retire by excelling in other areas! Here’s a list of former athletes who have had remarkable second careers.
Myron Rolle poses while wearing a black zip up fleece over blue hospital scrubs.
Barry Chin—The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Myron Rolle

As a kid, Myron Rolle was interested in mainly two things: football and neuroscience. After earning a master’s degree in medical anthropology at Oxford University in England, Rolle spent three years playing for the NFL and then retired to attend medical school. Today, Rolle is a pediatric neurosurgeon. He also happens to be a talented singer and saxophone player!

Randy Johnson is poised to pitch a baseball while wearing a pinstripe uniform.
© Scott Anderson/
Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson studied photojournalism in college before he became a Major League Baseball pitcher. After retiring from the sport in 2010, Johnson returned to what he calls his “passion” and became a professional photographer.
Becky Hammon smiles in front of spectators while gesturing to her left.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images Sport
Becky Hammon
After 16 seasons as a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) great, Becky Hammon became a professional basketball coach in a sport where men dominate the coaching positions. In 2014, she became the first woman to be fully recognized as a National Basketball Association (NBA) coach when she became assistant coach and Summer League head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. In 2023, she coached the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces to a league championship.
Eddie George stands on stage wearing a tuxedo, holding flowers, and smiling.
Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images Entertainment
Eddie George

Former NFL running back Eddie George spent many years as an actor on the stage and screen, even starring in the Broadway musical Chicago. George has since returned to his sport, as Tennessee State University’s head football coach.

Danica Patrick stands with her arms folded while wearing a jacket on which several sponsor names appear.
© Walter Arce/
Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick followed up her career as the most successful female driver in the history of American car racing by becoming an entrepreneur. In 2020, she launched a line of athleisure clothing called Warrior by Danica Patrick. She’s also a TV racing analyst.

Terry Crews smiles and poses in front of a backdrop reading MovieGuide Awards with arms outstretched and wearing a tuxedo.
© Hutchinsphoto/
Terry Crews
After retiring from a six-season career in the NFL, Terry Crews became an actor, beginning in commercials and moving on to appearances in movies and major roles in the TV shows Everybody Hates Chris and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Fun fact: Crews is also a talented artist and flute player.

A Master at Chess

© HarperCollins

To be a master at chess, you need a strategic mind and a lot of practice—which may be why some football players love the game. But not all great chess players are athletes, of course. 

Tanitoluwa Adewumi won a major kids’ chess tournament in 2019 at age 8. Now 13, he’s ranked high enough to be a chess master—one of the world’s top players.  

You don’t have to be a prodigy to love the game of chess. You can learn more about how to play at Britannica!




: having the ability to understand and work with numbers
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