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Sports Authority

Sant-Miller: Urschel stands apart from peers

| Monday, March 23, 2015

Not lost in the whirlwind of free agency, former NFL linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire at 24 has made waves. In short, an incredibly talented athlete made the decision to step down for his own physical well-being now and in the future.

Some portray the decision as the tip of a glacier, the vanguard of a changing landscape in professional sports. Herein, many laud the young man for his courageous decision to leave the sport he loves, as our very own Zach Klonsinski did last Thursday.

With every narrative, there is a counter narrative. Though Borland’s decision to leave the game of football is marked by fortitude, so is John Urschel’s decision to keep playing the game of football.

Urschel might be the smartest player in the National Football League right now. Last spring, the Baltimore Ravens drafted the offensive lineman in the 5th round of the 2014 draft. Though he was not an instant starter behind a talented front five, Urschel started three games down the stretch and played at a very high level.

Back to his brains. Urshel entered the NFL after completing both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Mathematics from Penn State. In both cases, he graduated with a 4.0.

Urschel’s story was more so lost in the whirlwind of free agency and the madness of March. Last week, Urschel’s article, “A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector” was published in the Journal of Computational Mathematics.

The risks of the NFL are high, few would disagree, but even fewer have anted up as much as Urschel. So, why is he out there smashing an exceptional brain against other human beings?

“I play because I love the game,” Urschel wrote in an essay in The Players’ Tribune. “I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else.”

No, Urschel strapping on his pads does not require the same kind of courage that Borland requires when he unstraps his. Nonetheless, if the discussion stands atop brain risk and deteriorating brain function, few football players are risking more for what they love. There is something powerful in the story of a man who loves something that much. There is something unique in that passion. There is something inspiring in that desire, something that tells me Urschel has certain intangibles that cannot be coached.

While the storyline of Borland’s decision runs its course, the narrative of balancing academics and college athletics runs side-by-side. I hope Urschel can be an inspiration for decision-makers going forward. More importantly, I hope he can be a motivation for young athletes out there.

Being a talented athlete does not preclude an individual from academic success. Though Urschel is an exceptional case, student athletes are competing in the classroom and on the field across the nation. My dream is that no athlete is forced to decide between the two. My dream is that athletes can embrace both dreams simultaneously, though the challenges of doing so should not be minimized and acknowledged.

While Borland can stand as a powerful image of health risks and football, I hope Urshel can stand as an equally powerful image of intelligence, academic drive, and football.

Simultaneously, every young person should be told to embrace what they love and chase their dreams. Though the pragmatism and research behind Borland’s decision is admirable, valuable, and eye opening, the passion, desire, and courage behind Urschel’s decision is inspiring in its own right.

In short, Urschel embodies a different kind of courage: a willingness to put oneself on the line for what one loves. Concurrently, this same narrative of courage embodies a positive interaction of academia and athletics, one that can be an inspiring model for student athletes at all levels going forward.

Follow the man, the academic, the professional athlete: @MathMeetsFball

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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