People like to talk about the imaginary division between students. In television and movies, especially, we’re told that there are ‘jocks’ and ‘preppies’ and ‘nerds’, and that each is distinct from the other. As if any of us is just one thing, and nothing more.
With that in mind, let’s talk for a minute about John Urschel.
John Urschel played football for Penn State from 2009 to 2013. He is a lineman, a grunt. Not the kind of household name you typically would associate with glory. But last month, he was nominated for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award. He didn’t win that honor, losing out to none other than Peyton Manning.
But SI writer Andy Staples thought Urschel was the right choice, and he wrote a terrific piece detailing his reasons. You can read the article in full right here. Some of it has to do with wide-reaching institutional flaws within the NCAA, the governing body that oversees college athletics, but never mind all that. Instead, take a closer look at who John Urschel is, what he has accomplished, and what he represents.
Andy Staples’ nominee for 2013 Sportsman of the Year is a jock. But he’s also a raging math nerd.
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A few highlights from the Staples article:
• Urschel always loved math. By the time he was 12 years old, having “devoured every math book his mother had bought for him,” and having taught himself algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, he sat in on a calculus class at a nearby university. Soon, the pre-teen was tutoring his college-student classmates.
• As a full-time football player at Penn State, he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in three years. Not satisfied, he pressed on, earning his master’s in mathematics while still carrying a 4.0 grade point average. He’s now working on a second master’s, this time in math education, while teaching integral vector calculus to undergrads. By the time his athletic scholarship expires, he will have earned three degrees . . . all while playing for a powerhouse football program and teaching in his spare time.
• Urschel used his athletic ability to advance his academic career. He’ll probably play in the NFL, but he’s got dreams beyond the gridiron. “I told my mother I could always go to MIT or Princeton or Stanford when I get my Ph.D. And I still plan to.”
• He added: “I’ve really tried to make the most of my opportunity. I’m really happy to be on scholarship mainly just to take away that financial strain from my mother. It’s great as a son to be able to tell your mom that she doesn’t have to take out any loans, she doesn’t have to work extra hours.”
• When his career is over, he plans to apply his mathematical mind to work in sports analytics, where he can find better, more efficient ways to analyze football data and prepare teams for games. Until then, he’s preparing for the NFL draft, working on his second master’s degree, and still working with undergrads. His message to his students? “It’s okay to have ridiculous goals.” Sheesh. He ought to know.
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Look, not everyone has the sort of ability (athletically or academically) that John Urschel has. But that’s not the point.
The point is that anyone who tells you that there are pre-assigned buckets that students should all fit into — jock, nerd, whatever — doesn’t know what they’re talking about. You don’t have to choose between being smart and being cool. You can (and should) do both.
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