Fighting some writer’s block for this week’s column, my attention was caught by a newly released book, “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” co-written by former Penn State football student-athlete John Urschel and his wife, Louisa Thomas. Something positive to write about was a welcome development.
A tremendous football player, John spent several NFL seasons as a starter for the Baltimore Ravens. But more importantly, John is one of the country’s truly elite math minds. He was writing academic papers and teaching college classes before he ever left Penn State. At a time when our nation needs more minds in the STEM fields, he is an inspiration. As a member of one of Joe Paterno’s last recruiting classes, John was also a fitting bookend to that era.
Forty years earlier, a talented music student named Mike Reid was a ferocious defensive tackle, one so good that he won the Maxwell Award given to the nation’s top college football player. He did this despite missing spring football practice to star in a campus production of “Guys and Dolls.” Mike became an instant success in the NFL making All-Pro several times.
Both John and Mike chose to end their NFL careers at the height of their most productive years. They did so to pursue and develop the rare talents they possessed in their other lifelong passions. Reid became a Grammy-winner, wrote dozens of number one hits and is in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Urschel is working on a Ph.D. from MIT, already has a theorem named after him and if there is a Mathematics Hall of Fame he will be headed there.
Is there something about football that compliments and attracts the minds of people like them?
Last spring, former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman and I talked about the mental skills football builds. It challenges the mind to plot, to envision and anticipate things based on learning. It creates people who must think about decisions, outcomes and problem solving.
Music, math and even writing are all creative pursuits requiring those skills.
And as I pondered this column another story showed up in NFL news. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel decided to finish his career at ager 29. We’d recruited EJ Manuel and he was in the same recruiting class as John Urschel.
In May of 2008 Bill Kenney and I visited EJ’s Bayside High School in Virginia Beach to meet with his coach and teachers, who raved about EJ’s character, leadership and academics. While we talked with his math teacher, her students filed into class.
She made the usual joke about students complaining about math lessons they’d “never use again.” I casually mentioned that I’d felt the same way in school, but in football coaching we used math daily. We used it to calculate percentages, angles of attack, evaluate statistical performance and predict behavior. (We were analytics before anyone even knew the word).
Coincidentally, in that same winter and spring I was in the midst of evaluating all geometric spacing in our passing game. I shared with her that we utilized the Pythagorean theorem calculating the most effective route depths and spacing. It told us the distances that defenders had to run to cover those routes. We used estimated top-end speeds to see if those distances could be covered by defenders.
The teacher asked if I would present what I’d just shared with her full class. Bill Kenney figured that as long as I did not specifically direct the guest lecture to EJ Manuel that we would not be violating NCAA rules. So I explained how using a2 + b2= c2 we calculated correct route depth, spacing, defenders’ positioning and how, using that theorem, we adjusted to be more precise and effective.
The lecture must have made quite an impression on EJ as he eventually signed with Florida State. Had I gone to John Urschel’s school, he could’ve given me that lecture in his sleep.
But seeing familiar names in the news this week once again made me think of what college football can be in its most noble form. It is easy to get caught up in the hype, and coaches selling players on attaining NFL riches after just three “easy” years of college stardom.
But college football’s highest calling is to be an avenue of opportunity to change lives. Young Mike Reid dreamt of music. John Urschel found doors opened to realize a potential driven by a mother who refused all excuses for failure for a son of incredible intellect. Michael Robinson came from Richmond, Va., to pursue a career in communications at one of the nation’s elite universities in his field. And college football was the path by which Compton, Calif., native Richard Sherman reached his mind’s potential, earning a Stanford education to become a leader among men.
As we look at recruiting hype, transfer portals and wonder how college football has seemingly gotten so far off the rails, it is good to remind ourselves of what it can and should be at its core.