The trend of young players walking away from lucrative NFL careers early continued Thursday when Canisius graduate John Urschel retired from the Baltimore Ravens at the age of 26.
“This morning John Urschel informed me of his decision to retire from football,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement released by the team. “We respect John and respect his decision. We appreciate his efforts over the past three years and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
A fifth-round draft pick out of Penn State in 2014, Urschel played 42 career games with the Ravens with 15 starts, including two in the playoffs as a rookie. He was in the running to be the Ravens' starting center this season, rotating with Ryan Jensen and Matt Skura during spring pratices.
Urschel will not lack for opportunities outside of football. A mathematics genius, he's pursuing a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was profiled in January by HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" and has released multiple research papers that have earned high praise, and is an A-student. According to Urschel's MIT biography, his areas of research include spectral graph theory, numerical PDE's, matrix algebra, computational finance and mathematical physics, among others.
"Right now, I spend most of my time thinking about discrete Schrödinger operators, high dimensional data compression, algebraic multigrid, and Voronoi diagrams," Urschel writes in his bio.
It's safe to say not many other football players have ever written a sentence like that. In a 2015 article written for "The Player's Tribune," Urschel's first sentence reads: "I envy Chris Borland."
Borland is the former San Francisco 49ers' linebacker who retired after his rookie season at age 24 because of concerns over the possible damage playing the sport was doing to his brain. In his essay, Urschel admits that "objectively, I shouldn't" be playing football.
"I have a bright career ahead of me in mathematics," he wrote. "Beyond that, I have the means to make a good living and provide for my family, without playing football. I have no desire to try to accumulate $10 million in the bank; I already have more money in my bank account than I know what to do with. I drive a used hatchback Nissan Versa and live on less than $25k a year. It’s not because I’m frugal or trying to save for some big purchase, it’s because the things I love the most in this world (reading math, doing research, playing chess) are very, very inexpensive."
Urschel goes on to explain that his mother, Venita, would remind him after every football season ended that he didn't need to play any more. Urschel explained his reasoning for continuing to play this way: "I play because I love the game. 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. My teammates, friends and family can attest to this: When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around. This is why, every offseason, I train in kickboxing and wrestling in addition to my lifting, running and position-specific drill work. I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it.
"Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."
On Thursday, Urschel followed in Borland's footsteps.