From NFL Pro to MIT Prof
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.