CHICAGO — Having already earned his first master’s degree and working toward a second, John Urschel may already have a claim on being the most accomplished student in the history of Penn State football.
Lauded as a brilliant mathematician by the university, Urschel was even more grateful for a different honor he received in the past year. In December, Big Ten football coaches voted him as a first-team all-conference selection on the offensive line.
“I’d say that was my single greatest accomplishment to date. Period,” said Urschel, one of Penn State’s representatives at Big Ten media days in Chicago. “Greatest accomplishment in my whole life.”
“Because of all the work I put in to get there.”
Urschel understands math as if it were plain English. In many ways, it comes very easily to him.
But football has been far more difficult for the senior, who returns to start at right guard in 2013. That struggle is what makes him proudest to be recognized at the best among his peers.
His background on and off the field earned him an invitation to deliver a speech at Thursday’s Big Ten kickoff luncheon, speaking to players, coaches and administrators from all 12 teams in the league.
“I wanted to address some of the younger players in the conference and just talk about some of the things you should try to do or aspire to do in your career,” Urschel said. “It’s an honor. It’s very humbling. It’s just… it’s hard for me to even believe how far I’ve come.
“When I came to Penn State, I was a two-star recruit from Buffalo, New York. And no one thought I was going to do much of anything.”
Urschel — thoughtful and introspective even in lighthearted moments — had to stop to compose himself.
“I’m glad that I’ve been able to contribute to Penn State and become a good football player in my career.”
Though football and math are his two main passions, Urschel actually has some public speaking experience.
Aside from teaching classes in the past year at Penn State, Urschel was also the keynote speaker at a high school graduation, speaking to a crowd roughly three times bigger than the one he faced on Thursday.
“But,” Urschel said, “this time there are cameras.”
It didn’t seem to faze him in the moment, however, as the senior received a standing ovation at the end of the speech.
“He was actually memorizing it on the plane (out to Chicago), which is incredible,” Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien said. “It looked like a lot of pages, and I said, ‘John, you might want to cut that down.’
“But what a fantastic kid. I think a lot has been made about his academic prowess, but I think we have to be reminded here that he’s a helluva football player. He’s a first-team All-Big Ten guard, which in this conference, that’s a big deal. And he’s got a chance to play pro football. So he’s just as good a football player as he is a student, he really is.”
To put that into perspective, Urschel has a perfect 4.0 GPA in his first four years at Penn State. He earned his master’s in math in the spring and will be working on a second master’s in math education this fall.
He began teaching classes himself earlier this year and will be doing so again in the fall, leading a class on Integral Vector Calculus, a 200-level class filled mostly with sophomores and juniors.
In the spring, he even had a paper published in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. It was titled “Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”
And yes, his coach feels he’s equally talented on the gridiron.
“Sometimes I feel it can be overshadowed by my math talents,” Urschel admitted. “It’s refreshing when I get football questions and I have football conversations. Because I personally believe I’m a good football player in my own right, irrespective of math.”
Urschel credits O’Brien, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald for helping him reach a higher level on the field last season.
Not bad for a guy who was the seventh and final offensive lineman that Penn State brought aboard in its 2009 recruiting class. Out of 27 players who signed with the Lions, Urschel was the 26th member to join.
“I wasn’t blessed with some amazing physical talent,” Urschel said. “I’m not 6-6. I’ve had to work. I’ve worked to become strong. I’ve worked to become athletic. I’ve worked to perfect my technique. I’ve worked to increase my football IQ. I’ve put countless number of man-hours into football, into becoming the player that I am. So I take a lot of pride in that.
“I wouldn’t trade my situation for any other athlete’s in the world. I’m very happy with what God has given me, and I think I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do, both academically and athletically.”