John Urschel is passionate about many things: Football, math, playing acoustic guitar, talking about restrictor operators, etc. But also, Connect Four. During senior year at Penn State 2013, the 305-pound guard asked ESPN staff writer Josh Moyer if he’s ever played the game:
When I move first, I am unbeaten. Unbeaten. And I dare someone to beat me. Bring this Connect Four game. I challenge someone to beat me, me moving first.
Now in the NFL on a 4-year, $2,364,560 contract with the Baltimore Ravens, I thought I’d see if Urschel’s challenge was still on the table. So when I showed up to interview him at Persado‘s New York City office in late June, I brought Connect Four. He let out an enthusiastic yelp and a big grin rode across his face.
“I can’t believe we’re going to do this!”
We went best of three. He beat me Every. Single. Game. During a final mercy round, Urschel tried to make me feel better about being skunked: “Completely out-gamed again. But you put me to the test.”
That’s a very sportsman-like thing to say to a loser, but not really; I never stood a chance beating him in Connect Four. John Urschel’s undefeated streak remains.
Conventionally, a professional NFL player is an unlikely spokesperson for Persado, a B2B “persuasion automation” company that uses complex algorithms for marketing and copywriting. But complex algorithms and clobbering 300-pound defensive linemen on the football field are Urschel’s forte. He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics from Penn State and will most likely end up in a PhD program at a prestigious university when his football days come to an end. He scored the highest of his draft class on the Wonderlic (43 out of 50). His paper “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector” was published in the Journal of Computational Mathematics back in March. It looks like this:
Despite the publication of that paper, Urschel continued to spend his off-season grinding away at mathematical concepts. His Twitter handle, @mathmeetsfball, is filled with his work in the field.
He’s perhaps the model spokesperson for Persado. When our Connect Four game ended, he launched into his excitement about being able to represent the company: “I’m ready to talk about this and I could talk about this all day,” he grinned.
“These people are awesome. These are math people. These are my people and they’re doing this fantastic thing where they’re taking mathematics and they’re applying it to marketing — of all things. It’s this thing where you look and you think about marketing, you don’t think that math would be applicable here.”
Persado has been called “the Moneyball of marketing,” largely because it’s a business that aims to perfect business-to-consumer messaging. As Urschel explains it, this is what convinced him to sign up as a pitchman for the company.
“It’s all about what consumers are talking about. The benefit here is that now all of a sudden companies trying to market to consumers are getting more bang for their buck and they’re getting better responses… Instead of having a room of marketing people saying, ‘Well I think we should do this or I think we should do that,’ there’s a rigorous structure to try to find the best way to apply a message and it involves advanced mathematics.”
Urschel’s razor-sharp intellect, explosive playing style and career success in two dramatically different fields are an inspiration to many people, myself included. At 24 years old he’s accomplished more in the last five years than most can dream of in a lifetime.
For the next hour, we discussed math, football, and the convergence of those two powerful universal forces. Read highlights from our conversation below:
What is it like being a public spokesperson and role model for math education everywhere?
Mathematicians are going to run the 21st Century. This happening and it’s very much happening now. It’s very much happening. Mathematicians are the people who handle your emails and deal with your orders. These are the people who are coming up with the algorithms to make sure that your car can park itself. The things that you depend on and will be depending on — these are mathematicians.
Do you consider math or professional football your day job?
In the fall, I’m doing football all day for seven months. Then it’s off-season and then I’m doing math every day. The awesome thing is when I’m doing math, I get this vacation from football, which is physically refreshing. And then when I’m doing football, I get this vacation from math, which is just awesome mental relaxation. I’m on vacation 365 days a year and it feels fantastic.
Can you apply mathematical principles to being a professional lineman?
I think it’s this quick decision-making, which is very mathematical and quantitative to be able to see what’s going on — to make quick decisions, get this in your head, understand what you just saw, and decide to do the right thing in split seconds. And this is a very quantitative skill.
But if you’re thinking too much, you’ll get killed on the football field.
What’s it like to explain your math work to your fellow professional football players?
Everyone, for the most part, is like “Oh I get it” — I always make sure I explain it in a way that they will be saying “Oh I get it.” And it’s not like I have to like dumb math down for football players more so than the general population. They are all on the same level. The way I explain my math work is that I came up with a way to compute this quantity a lot faster. This quantity is very useful in a subset of artificial intelligence. It’s just teaching computers how to think. That’s it. Just teaching computers how to think.
What’s the biggest real-life application of your math work?
The biggest application I see is in this type of dimensionality reduction for large data. Think Massive data scale.
How much fun is it to inspire a generation of future mathematicians?
They think it’s crazy cool. The kids always have fantastic questions for me. The best questions I get are questions I get from children.
I was somewhere two weeks ago and this child asked me, “What part of your job do you like the least?” And no one has ever asked me this before. Or another child asked me, “You’re on a desert island and there is no math or football on this desert island. What three things do you bring?” And this is a tough question.
That’s an amazing question. You have to answer the questions now…
Hold on. I’m not going to let you piggyback off of these fourth graders’ questions. We are moving on sir.
They will be credited! So what would you bring?
These are amazing questions that fourth graders are asking me. Let’s see. I can only bring three things. No math. No football. I’d bring a chess set. I would bring a Lydia Davis book — She’s a short story writer who I adore. And I would bring an acoustic guitar.
So you play guitar too?
I’ve been playing since middle school. I’m a blues and jazz guitarist, but naturally, where am I going to plug in on the desert island? So I will bring an acoustic guitar. Music is good for the soul. I’ve got a ’93 Fender Strat and it’s like my baby.
What about the best and worst parts of your job?
Yeah, we can’t ignore that. The least part of my job…. Hmmm. I love being out on the field, I like the paycheck, and I love that I’m in a position where I can try to do some good in the world and try to inspire people.
Just inspire people, especially mathematically or academically. I take pride in this.
What I don’t enjoy is everything else. Like — I’m talking to you, which is awesome, and you’re an awesome guy, but you are the medium through which I talk to the world. I recognize this. This is important, but other things like not having peace and quiet. Times where I’d like peace and quiet, these are things about my job that I do not love.
Do you feel like some accomplished mathematicians in academia and the private sector don’t get the proper respect from the general public?
It hurts me a little. Also what hurts me some is that thoroughly I am proud of this latest paper I have. I’m so proud of it. It is not my most proud paper. It is not my most substantial contribution to mathematics.
So what is your proudest accomplishment in mathematics?
Spectral bisection of graphs and connectedness. That was my third paper. This is my fourth one. My third was on spectral bisection of graphs and connectedness. It was published in the Journal Linear Algebra and Its Applications, which is the top journal in my field of mathematics. The top journal, which I was so proud of. That was on my bucket list of things to do as a mathematician — be published in a top mathematical journal in my field, which I did on my third paper and I was so overjoyed about this.
I closed this chapter in an area of spectral graph theory in relation to the connectivity of field vectors. I was so proud to finish this and have it be the end all of be all.
People were proud of me for publishing this, then I write this other thing to prove some uniform convergence. I do good things, but I am more proud of this other one, even though this last one blew up.
I am proud of all my papers.
How does a restrictor operator work?
I do something that is very aggressive. It’s this aggressive restriction-coursing operator that really tries to get to the root of things very fast and very quickly. It might look a little scary and it’ll be a little unnerving to certain people in this field, but proves to work extremely well, which I imagined it would be.
It’s like math nitrous oxide to a car in Fast and Furious?
Right. Yeah exactly. Let’s hit that switch and get going.
That’s what’s going on there. Then the uniform convergence involving finite element theory in this proof, which, man, took some work, but I am very proud of it. It’s a nice theoretical result proving uniform convergence of cascadic multigrid methods for these elliptic domains. It’s for the Laplace equation on certain convex domains, but could easily have been applied to general elliptic operators and the job is like this.
You’re coming close to losing me. I can tell you about some of my Penn State English major theories…
I got you. I’m glad we’re still all here. We’re still on the boat.
You talked to the NSA earlier this summer, right?
It was an honor. I really respect the mathematicians at the NSA. There are lots of academics who do research and do all these things, but these academics at NSA they are working every single day to keep this country safe, which there’s something to be said for that.
Although… the response I received from going there from Twitter is very interesting. TMZ Sports wrote a headline along the lines of “John Urshel Talks To NSA: Helps Homeland Spies.”
I do this thing and it’s great. The NSA deserves some positives. But “homeland spies?” How does TMZ take something so innocent and so just sensationalize it into a story that should be in the National Inquirer?
Going back to football, you got thrown in the discussion on player safety after Chris Borland retired. You received a lot of attention for your Player’s Tribune essay.
My editor at the Player’s Tribune texted me as he does sometimes. He says, “Hey, hey blah, blah, blah, Chris Borland retired. You want to? Do you have any thoughts on this?” And I thought to myself, “You know what Chris Borland is a friend of mine and I respect him so much.” We played each other during those Wisconsin – Penn State game and man — that guy can play. He is the toughest inside linebacker I’ve ever played against.
I thought, “You know what? I will write something.” I write something up and I say, “Yeah, alright let’s post it.” So I sent it to him and I think it’s very much a spur-of-the-moment thing. I think it’s very much not going to be read. I think it’s very much going to be a much smaller story than my mathematical posts. But then they post it and people start going crazy. It was very much on a whim.
You sort of set yourself into the player’s safety conversation, though.
Yes, which I had no intentions of like being fully involved with. It was really just like “yeah I’ll give my two cents on this.”
How do you feel that the game is being dramatically changed because of player safety?
When we’re talking about player safety, there are three ways to go about this. One is safety through equipment. Two is safety through technique. Three is safety through changing like rules and structure of how the game is played. I don’t like three very much. Let’s not turn football into soccer. You know what I mean?
It’s a massive problem right now. From a viewership standpoint, it kind of sucks.
Yeah. Let’s not change football into something it’s not.
Just as an entertainment consumer of the game…
Or as a player who takes pride in how football is played. So let’s not do that. Changing technique, this also kind of changes the game, which sometimes these things change naturally, but let’s not try to force this change. Let’s not all start playing patty-cake out there. And then the main one I see is just better equipment. Better helmets, things such as this and I think this is the best way to go about it.