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John Urschel, ex-NFL player and mathematician, on how to find your passion

John Urschel needs little introduction around Buffalo.

The Canisius High School graduate, a former Penn State and Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman, continues to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT.

And he’s written a book, “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” which went on sale Tuesday. The memoir was co-written with his wife, journalist Louisa Thomas, and published by Penguin Press.

Urschel, 27, writes about the factors that led to his decision to retire from the NFL in 2017, including his passion for math, the birth of his daughter and a head injury that led him to examine the correlation between football and CTE.

In a recent phone interview with The Buffalo News, Urschel discussed what it was like to write a book with his significant other, at what age he’d allow his hypothetical son to play football and his thoughts on the NFL’s efforts to improve head safety.

He also shared why he enjoys following the University at Buffalo (but hopes Buffalo never becomes a “college football town”), where he must eat every time he returns to Western New York, the most fascinating aspect of 10th-grade geometry and more, including advice for finding your passion.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why were you compelled to write this book and what did you hope to accomplish?

A: First of all, when the concept of this book first started, it was actually a math book. It was meant to be me sort of sharing my experiences with mathematics and my journey with mathematics. And it really sort of grew into something else. Penguin was very interested in the book, but they were more interested in math and me holistically.

They said, “If you really want to reach an audience using mathematics, you need to put more of yourself into it. You really need to make it personal.” Whereas I was very much sort of trying to write about math in the abstract, and sprinkle in some of my experiences with math, and they also said that you’d be doing a big disservice if you didn’t write about your whole personal life throughout your journey. Not just the math, but also football, because it was a very big part of my life and who I am.

So that’s sort of how the book came to be, and I’m really glad that Penguin gave me this advice, because they were absolutely right.

Q: What was it like writing a book with your significant other?

A: It was fantastic. She’s the best writer I know. We each brought our own areas of expertise to the table. She knows nothing about math, so I was very much in charge of all the math chapters and had to try to convey mathematics to a general audience, which was a really fun endeavor for me, and then for her with the narrative portions, the football portions, to sort of make me sound more eloquent than I actually am.

Q: What’s the promotional tour been like so far? A little bit of a whirlwind?

A: Yeah, it’s been crazy. It’s been taking up a lot of time. A little bit more time than I would like. But I know it’s important to get the book out there. But I am very much looking forward to getting back to research.

Q: You’ve said that if you had a son, you wouldn’t want him to play football until high school. Why, in your opinion, is playing the sport acceptable at that level?

A: I think football, it really is a great game. It’s given me so much. And if I have a son and he likes football, he wants to play football, I’ll let him do it in high school because it seems like at that point your body is pretty developed, your brain is pretty developed. Whereas playing when you’re very, very little, when you’re still developing in many, many ways, it’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I’m a big proponent of playing flag football and 7-on-7 football before you get to middle school.

Q: With the concerns about concussions and CTE, what do you think football looks like in the future?

A: I think it’s very much what it looks like today. I think the game will still look very similar, just with little changes here and there. Better protection for players, better safety measures, and trying to keep the game great but always trying to make it a safer game. I have to say that my time in the league, every single year it felt like the NFL was doing something new to try to complete that mission.

Q: Why are you a bigger fan of college football than the pros?

A: It’s just because I was in both, and in my personal experience, I really enjoyed playing college football a lot more. Just because I think the notion of team is much stronger in college. The concept of a bunch of guys living together, being together for four or five years and playing for their university, there’s a real sense of pride in that. At least there was at Penn State. And it’s something that I really connect with.

Q: Do you pay attention to the Bills and/or the UB football program?

A: I do follow the UB football program. I like to check in and see how they’re doing and I try to catch their games if I can. The Bills, not so much, because I just don’t watch a lot of pro football. But when I did watch pro football – of course, I’ve been a Bills fan ever since I was little – I watched the Bills all the way through college. But once I got to the pros, I just stopped watching pro football and I’ve never really gone back.

Q: Can you see Buffalo ever being a college football town?

A: Well, I hope they never become that, because that would mean that the Bills have left. I hope they never are. I don’t watch pro football, but I’ll always be a Bills fan, and I always check to see how the Bills are doing. So I hope that never happens.

Q: How often do you get back to Western New York, and what are your favorite places to visit, whether restaurants or just places where you enjoy relaxing?

A: I come back all the time. My family, my father still lives there, so many of my best friends still live there. When I come back, it’s usually a lot of relaxing. I like hanging out in Delaware Park, sitting back, reading a book. In the summer months, at least. In terms of food, I always feel the need to hit up Jim’s Steakout every time I come back to Buffalo, because we just don’t have it in Boston. It’s more of a Western New York thing. That’s one thing, I’ve got to stop by Jim’s every time I’m in Buffalo.

Q: What memories stand out from your time at Canisius High School, and what are your impressions of the school’s growth in football and as a premier academic program?

A: It’s been amazing to see the growth that they’ve had. Canisius looks a lot different than when I was there. They built an all-new science wing. They built a new auditorium. But even though they built all these new amazing resources, in many ways it’s very much the same as when I was there, in sort of the best way possible.

It’s a fantastic school that’s really molding young men, and the teachers are as good as they get. I always think back to my time at Canisius and know that I was really starting to be molded into the man I am today. They really prepared me well for college.

I always tell people, “Canisius is not easy, and when I got to college at Penn State, my first year in college academically was easier than my last year at Canisius.” I tell everyone this. Believe me when I say Canisius is truly a great place to send your son if you want him to be prepared for college. If you want him to get to college and just hit the ground running, Canisius is the place to go.

Q: I have a colleague who wants to know why his 10th-grade geometry teacher was so boring.

A: First of all, apologies to your colleague. I don’t know his 10th-grade geometry teacher. I think geometry can be a really interesting subject if it’s taught the right way. In high school geometry, this is sort of the point when you’re first introduced to the concept of trying to take something, and not just take it for granted, but prove that it’s true, to take a geometric fact and prove that it’s true. When you’re in 10th-grade geometry, this is when you really get introduced to the concept of proof. Of proving something. And it can really be a fascinating time, if it’s taught in the right way. Because the idea of really knowing something is a beautiful concept.

Q: What’s a fact that you like to tell young people to blow their minds, or something math-related that you find intrigues kids?

A: Even though a lot of young people don’t know what a mathematician is or what a mathematician does, this is one of the most sought-after professions in the world. Mathematicians, these are the people that Google is hiring, Amazon is hiring, that sort of are working on Wall Street. These are the people that the NSA are hiring. I think the NSA likes to say they’re the single biggest employer of mathematicians in the country. And that mathematicians aren’t just people at universities teaching calculus to college kids.

Q: You’ve found at least two things that you’re passionate about in math and football. Do you have advice you can share for someone trying to find something they’re passion about?

A: I think I have a simple answer: Try new things. If you haven’t really found something that you’re truly passionate about, try new things. Be open to new experiences. And even if you don’t find something that you’re passionate about, first of all, you don’t really have to be extremely passionate about something in life. You can just enjoy things. But be open to new things and try new things, because you never know when you’re going to find your passion, if you have one.

Q: I know you’re learning and studying chess. What else are you working on that excites you, whether a hobby or something work-related?

A: Right now I’m just most excited about finishing my Ph.D. in math. I graduate this upcoming spring, so a year from now, and I’m just really looking forward to moving on from MIT. I’m going to be applying for postdocs and I’m just excited for what comes next.

Q: Any idea?

A: We will see, but I am going to be a professor. I am going to be in academia.

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