Why Math Is The Ultimate Vacation For Baltimore Ravens Guard John Urschel
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 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:
— John Urschel (@MathMeetsFball) July 4, 2015
It is weird that every time I see a stat about the number of NFL players without a degree, I feel guilty for not having my PhD yet?
— John Urschel (@MathMeetsFball) July 1, 2015
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: