You Heard Right: I’m a Pro Football Player and a Mathematician at MIT

Here’s how I balance school and the game

Hey, I’m John Urschel. You probably know me as #64 on the Baltimore Ravens. What you don’t know about me is that I’m also a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, studying applied mathematics. This year, I became a brand ambassador for Bose. Here’s the story behind my passion for mathematics as told to The Sound of Innovation.

So, John, you’re a football player and a mathematician. Tell us: How do you manage to be both?

I’m studying scientific computing, spectral graph theory and spatial Tessellations at MIT. And I’m an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. I balance both easily because I love what I do. I mean, I’ll get a funny nickname every once in awhile, but the guys on the team don’t really care what you do in the off season.

You don’t just have to be in this one box or that other box — football player or academic. You can be in two boxes. So I’m the smart football player.

I think when I leave this earth I want to be remembered as a hard-nosed tough football player that is a mathematician who discovered some great things, but also inspired some even greater minds.

What’s so important about math, anyway?

I’m a huge math proponent, but I will be the first person to say this: everyone does not need to take calculus. What people need is to learn how to think quantitatively. Using the chain rule is not something that’s going to go on in your daily life. How many times in your day do you use a derivative? I’m going to guess if you’re not a scientist or an engineer, big fat zero. But how many times a day are you faced with problems? And by problems I mean a decision between this or that. Without even knowing it in your head you quantitatively work through it and decide which is the best. That’s what math helps you deal with: quantitative reasoning. Seeing a problem that might be a little different than every single problem you’ve seen in your life, but using what you know and what you’ve experienced to be able to make an informed and good answer. That’s math.

Math is a language we use to describe the world we live in. Math is useless without the world. Just like words have no meaning without the object they represent. The word “chair” means nothing if this chair doesn’t exist. Just like math doesn’t mean anything if this world around us doesn’t exist. Math doesn’t exist on its own. How can we explain the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, if we can’t count five objects. Math is a tool that’s used to explain all of these things in the world, both natural phenomena and man made phenomena.

Why’d you choose MIT?

When I decided that I wanted to get my Ph.D., I looked at all the top programs and I asked myself: Where is the best place for what I want to do? I have a strong background in partial differential equations and numerical PDE’s, but I felt like I wanted to branch out a little bit and do more spectral graph theory and theoretical computer science while also getting my Ph.D. in mathematics. I thought MIT was the best place for that, having some fantastic, brilliant mathematicians in that area. I applied last June, and thankfully, they accepted me. I haven’t regretted my decision for a second.

I love the people at MIT. There are so many brilliant mathematicians who are so passionate about what they are doing, just like I’m so passionate about what I’m doing.

MIT and Bose are connected in more ways than just you, right?

Dr. Bose taught at MIT for forty years. And now MIT owns the majority of Bose in the form of non-voting shares. How does the world not know about this? When you buy a Bose product, you’re directly supporting education, you’re directly supporting MIT, and the knowledge and innovation that MIT stands for.

Ok, so tell us how noise cancellation actually works.

There is a lot of mathematics involved in acoustics, especially in the things that they do with noise canceling.

What they have over there is you see how the pressure in the ear, there’s the term with the pressure of the noise and then it’s divided by G applied to K. So K by itself is very straightforward, but you want G applied to K to be very large. Just like in numerical analysis, you have some operator, you’re solving some equation and you want to decrease the condition number, preconditioner, this is a similar idea, although I’m not sure that term directly applies, just my math base is what it seems like to me.

I think it’s a continuation. It’s just the pressure in the ear equals minus divided by G, minus pressure, the noise divided by G times K. That gives you an approximation to the pressure in the ear, when G applied to K is much, much larger than one. That makes the contribution from the pressure of the noise nominal, and that’s the whole idea of noise canceling. The noise goes away.

John, how do you see your future after football?

I think being a professor would just be a great job, very low stress, get to research whatever problems in the world really interest me and the best part is getting to teach and inspire young minds. Even those who aren’t really passionate about mathematics. I take pride in that. Dr. Bose taught at MIT for forty years. I’d love to the opportunity to teach at somewhere so great for so long.

All illustrations and animations by Thoka Maer. Sponsored by Bose, The Sound of Innovation explores the ways in which sound shapes our experience of the surrounding world. Learn more about the new wireless QuietControl 30 and QuietComfort 35 headphones at