The Center for Leadership and Ethics hosted John C. Urschel, former Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman and doctoral candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to spend the day engaging with cadets and faculty March 4, 2020. That evening, he shared insights from his newly released memoir, “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” co-written with his wife, journalist and historian Louisa Thomas. His talk was part of the CLE’s inspirational speaker series titled Courageous Leadership, which typically features two speakers each spring. The talk concluded with an audience question and answer session. Guests were able to speak with Urschel and get their copies of his book autographed after the talk.
Urschel’s memoir chronicles his life and the path he took pursuing football and then finding a passion for teaching mathematics. The inspiration behind pursuing football grew from an admiration for his father, who also played the sport. His mother, however, fostered in him a love for mathematics by having him solve puzzles. Conveniently for her, problem-solving kept him quietly occupied for hours while she attended to her own academic pursuits. Whether he developed a facility for mathematics, or whether it was innate, it wasn’t until college that a mentor appeared and nurtured that talent into a passion. He described how his professor, with nothing personally to gain, began to challenge him intellectually, and that relationship led to opportunities do to research and publish academic papers as an undergrad.
Urschel explained he recognized that he had a platform to speak from to show kids that they didn’t have to choose between athletics and academics; they could do both. Admittedly, Urschel kept these two worlds compartmentalized but then realized it would be best to pursue one over the other and mathematics won out. He explained that he felt he had a responsibility and a role to play in nurturing the next generation. Ultimately, it was his love for his family and his long-term goal of becoming a professor of mathematics that prompted him to retire from the NFL and pursue his education.
During his visit to post, he was able to speak to cadets. Stops included visits to the athletics department to speak to the VMI football team and the Department of Applied Mathematics. He had dinner with select cadets prior to his evening talk.
Zane Grzeszczak ’19, CLE intern and history major, accompanied Urschel throughout the day. Grzeszczak said, “The vibe seemed to be really positive among football players and vice versa. He encouraged them to come together and eliminate outside distractions. He was passionate about being goal-driven and gave them some insights regarding academics, being a D1 athlete, and what it was like to be an NFL athlete.” Grzeszczak also observed that Urschel was fascinated with the rigors and strong structured life VMI has to offer.
Capt. Catherine M. Roy CLE Communications and Marketing Specialist