John Urschel Explains Why He Turned Down One Last Recruiting Pitch From Jim Harbaugh
John Urschel’s newly published memoir “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football” recounts the former Penn State lineman and mathematician’s journey to success, from the fields and classrooms of his childhood to lecture halls at MIT.
Although Urschel’s book explores his two parallel passions in-depth, students, fans, and alumni will find Urschel’s memories of his time in Happy Valley especially interesting. From familiar experiences like team breakfasts at the Corner Room and lecture hall classes to his decision to stay with the program in the aftermath of the Sandusky Scandal, Urschel offers readers a personal but useful history of the university’s culture and its darkest days.
Urschel’s first contact with Penn State was initiated when then-wide receiver coach Mike McQueary paid him a surprise recruiting visit at his Buffalo high school. Urschel was soon offered a full scholarship, and his weekend visit tour guide was current Eagles lineman, Stefan Wisniewski.
He described his first meeting with Joe Paterno in January 2009, and even noted a last-ditch effort from Jim Harbaugh, then the coach at Stanford, to bring him to west. “I already gave my word,” Urschel said. “I thanked him and got off the phone.”
Urschel takes readers through his own journey to becoming a pillar of Penn State’s offensive line and one of the university’s most trusted ambassadors, including his debut during a nail-biter against Indiana in 2010, grueling morning lifts before sunrise, and a locker room culture of diverse interests and personalities. Some noteworthy characters of the memoir include Urschel’s roommate and friend Ty Howle and all-time great quarterback Daryl Clark, who gave him a haircut soon after he arrived on campus.
When the Sandusky scandal surfaced and Paterno was fired in 2011, Urschel was nearing the end of his sophomore season. Urschel said he remembers some of his teammates didn’t even know who Sandusky was when his arrest was first announced.
He walked a careful line in describing the disappointment the players felt at the resultant sanctions — including a scene in which the entire team watched the NCAA’s announcement on television — while still acknowledging the gravity of Sandusky’s actions.
“The bad publicity was nothing compared to the sexual abuse of children,” he said. “Still, the attention — all of it negative, even accusatory — blew us back. We, the players, were implicated and held in part responsible.”
Urschel describe the following years of playing in the fallout of the scandal, the pressure of being seen as a university ambassador, and his decision to remain in Happy Valley despite enticing offers from academic powerhouses like Northwestern and, again, Stanford. His Penn State career ended with an underdog victory over Wisconsin, which he remembered in an emotional anecdote.
As much as Urschel’s memoir looks back at his days as football player at Penn State, it does also place a strong emphasis on his studies. In addition to Paterno and his teammates, Urschel noted plenty of other mentors and collaborators ranging from professors Vadim Kaloshin and Ludmil Zikatanov to then-postdoc Xiaozhe Hu.
For those interested, Urschel explains his own research interests and difficult mathematical concepts in graph theory and computer science. For the uninitiated, Urschel uses plenty of crisp metaphors and one-liners that convey his passion for the practice, not the result, of his work in mathematics
“Calculus, I quickly grasped,” he said, “Let me move from a world that was static and frozen to a world that could move and flow.”
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