The Double Life of an NFL Lineman

Behind the scenes, John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, had another life. His secretive obsession was kept under wraps from his teammates. Most of them, he thought, would not understand or approve. This affection was overwhelming his thoughts and turning his motivation away from football. This desire continued calling him, and it succeeded in stealing him away from the game. He was madly in love with the beauty of mathematical equations and formulas. This all-consuming romance was fueled by a passion for mathematical problem solving. The potential of his brain and an academic pursuit of a Ph.D. at MIT trumped and outsmarted his truly exceptional physical prowess and success as an NFL starter.

This quest to pursue his true love prompted a bold decision by Urschel, which shocked many inside and outside the game. It candidly displays how powerful vocational calling and our Creator’s design are in one’s life. But we must listen and respond. This man with a one in a million body and mind did both!

From the time he was a small boy, John’s mom encouraged him to read, use his mind and explore the world of ideas. He developed a fascination and pre-occupation with puzzles, board games, and math and logic problems. He was extremely good at math, but he wasn’t sure why or how it might apply to his life as he progressed through high school.

On a football scholarship, Urschel majored in math at Penn State—and the light went on. An invested and engaged professor proposed a significant math problem for him to think about and ponder. This providential engagement was the key to unlock the connection between his passions and abilities and a tangible outlet for these gifts. This experience helped to change his life. This professor invited him into a new realm of his brain to solve problems that no one had ever solved. This lit a fire under his seat to use his exceptional and unique talent to solve extremely complex theorems and hypotheses. This longing to solve problems that no human had been able to tackle and solve never left his mind during his NFL career.

The pieces of his vocational calling puzzle began to take shape and come into focus. Two voices reverberated in his mind. First, his own small quiet voice that he had heard for years was now increasing in volume. Second, the loud consistent voice of his mother requesting that he exit football and pursue a career in “rocket science” was sinking in. He took time to listen to his heart, to his experiences, and to the voices in considering the tangible implications of a decision that would be life-changing.

This takes some gumption. At the age of 26 and in his third year in the league, in the midst of a developing very successful NFL career, he paused to consider what would bring true meaning and satisfaction in a career. He resolutely responded by enrolling full-time as a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and turned in his helmet and pads.

Urschel speaks of several feelings and emotions that led him to this decision. In a New York Times piece titled “Math Teachers Should Be More Like Football Coaches,” he states that mathematics gives him a sense of wonder and curiosity, and rewards creativity. Football was not delivering these basic, deep-seated vocational calling needs for Urschel. He goes on to say that he feels a childlike excitement when he undertakes the challenge of solving a math problem. Urschel is tearing it up at MIT. He is experiencing exhilaration and gladness by being in a career that aligns with his design.

Urschel has a message for each us. Life is short; be willing to make a major change in your life to pursue your love. A willingness and then a commitment to step out boldly against all odds will make all the difference in your career satisfaction and joy.

About James Thrasher

Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Student Recruitment and the coordinator of the Institute for Faith and Freedom working group on calling.

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